Christmas Papyri Bonanza at Bonhams

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Christmas is approaching so London auction houses are getting ready to provide the wealthy with adequate opportunities to buy gifts. At the end of this month Bonhams is auctioning a number of papyri. There are two of them that are particularly dear to me. They are listed as Lot 205: in case you are a responsible collector, please buy and gift them to a public (in the sense of State funded and controlled) museum or university, or at least provide a contact to access the texts to the papyrology community.

The lot looks exactly the same as one sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2003 (lot 94, as recalled in the catalogue): it gathers P.Oxy. 10 1256 and 1265. These two papyri were part of a small papyrus collection which ended up in the United States as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund/Egypt Exploration Society distribution policy of the early 20th century (they come from Grenfell and Hunt campaigns at Oxyrhynchus). They were given to Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, but were later dispersed through a Sotheby’s sale in 2003. The sale in question ignored academic and museum guidelines about responsible de-accessioning of antiquities and manuscripts. The School also disregarded the aims and spirit of the Egypt Exploration Society’s distributions that were a means to provide institutions with ancient objects for teaching, exhibit and education activities, and not a means to make up budgets.

Three years ago I wrote an article about this interesting but disturbing story, which involves also a papyrus now in the Museum of the Bible (P.Oxy. 15 1780 = P39, fragment of the Gospel of John), arguing that any change of ownership is a threat to the preservation and availability of antiquities for future study and research.

From 2003 to 2018 these two papyri went lost to both the academic community and the public because nobody knew the identity of the buyer, covered by auction house sale agreements and laws; they have now re-emerged to be most probably gone again in the dark at the end of the month. It is time to revise how antiquities are sold on the legal market, in particular through auctions.

A similar history  is also shared by the other two Oxyrhynchus papyri on sale as lot 207, held in the British Charterhouse collection until when they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2002. One of the two papyri is a piece everyone of us use for teaching: P. Oxy. 3 475, a report on the death of an eight-years-old slave boy who fell out of a window during a public festival.

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