Frustration Week

Dear readers I should say this has been a week of social media and e-commerce failures. Having all been invited by the Museum of the Bible to join the @AskACurator ‏ day on Wednesday on Twitter, I thought to send a number of questions about provenance and guess what? Not a single one was answered. Others went unanswered too, but I have been asking since 2014, after all I felt I had to be treated with some respect. Even Mr Ask A Curator had a say…

 

Anyway, I brought my frustration to eBay and it went even worse. Two papyrus fragments appeared on sale from a German account, evangelist75, an interesting chap who according to his feedback report has sold quite a number of antiquities of all sorts, including other “interesting old Coptic papyrus sheets”, as he calls and sometimes misspells them. For once I give mine and my colleagues’ expertise: those just sold, one for £ 48.93 and the other for £ 77.75, are fakes (although the papyrus sheets might be genuine or faked better than the texts: hard to say). Actually they are hilarious fakes considering the Facebook comments when my friend Alin Suciu posted the links.

So the buyers have been cheated, which I really enjoy since these papyri would have never been acquired by responsible collectors. Mr evangelist75 has in fact told me via the eBay chat: “I have purchased from an antique dealer in Germany about 20 years ago and comes from nord Egyptian area. ” Maybe he had been cheated too? Who knows…

In the light of previous experiences, I did not bother this time to fill the eBay form for irregularities, since all those I sent have remained unanswered so far. I went straight to Twitter and talked to eBay through their @AskeBay account. This is what I got back (click on the link here below and you’ll see all the conversation):

Isn’t it amazing? Those fancy people in the Silicon Valley know how get by in this world. They earn tons of money and pretend us all to make their job of monitoring FOR FREE!!! If I were not the lady I am, I would pass at this point to Italian body language. But never mind, after all it is Sunday and frustration week will be ended soon.

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Thinking about Buying a Papyrus Online? Think Twice!

Best real shopping? Bologna's city centre, no doubt...

Best real shopping? Bologna’s city centre, no doubt! Leave the computer at home and join me this summer…

I have been doing some experiments with online shopping for antiquities recently. I must admit I do not like buying online. I love real, solid, heavy shopping in a selected number of places, where I like to go in person for the ritual and the chatting with retailers and customers. I dislike Amazon and co. cardboard; I prefer nice, handmade packaging. Yes, I am one of those women you see happily carrying shopping bags on the street: old fashioned, I know.

Anyway, I had to try the online thrill in order to understand how it works for a paper I am giving at the annual ARCA conference in Amelia soon. I thought I would give you some ideas about what I found, and a taste of the paper, in case you are not lucky enough to be in Amelia in June, which is a pity for you, I must say, because that is one of the loveliest towns in Umbria.

About one month ago Alin Suciu (Göttingen) sent Jenny Cromwell (Copenhagen) and me a link to the online catalogue for the sale of a Coptic papyrus by Auctionata, one of the many auction houses now operating on the web. Basically Auctionata works like traditional auction houses, but bidding takes place exclusively online. The firm seems big, and covers many types of objects, from antiquities to watches, paintings and other collectibles. They have two main offices, one in Berlin the other in New York, but also agents in other countries.

So on the one hand I asked Jenny Cromwell to give me a quick opinion on the fragment versus the online catalogue description due to her expertise on the monastic material, and on the other I started a conversation via email with the auction house.

I reproduce here the image and the catalogue description both still available through the sale result webpage (the piece was sold for € 1,200 on 20 April):

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“The present piece is a letter, written on papyrus, originating from Western Thebes, ancient Egypt, dating to the 6th century AD. The papyrus letter is written in Coptic, the latest native form of the language of Egypt. Four lines can be read in contiguous writing in Sahidic, a dialect of the Coptic. On the edges further text lines remain. Therefore, it can be assumed that there used to be at least one more line above and below the present text. The text mentions Phoibamon (sic), a monk and founder of a monastery, who used to live in the monastery above the ruins of the Hatshepsut Temple in Deir el-Bahari (Western Thebes).

The letter is in a very well-preserved condition, considering its age. The main parts of the letter are missing, however, the parts that do remain are very well preserved. The papyrus displays frayed parts and it is partially folded. The corners are strongly frayed. Little fragments within the centre piece of the papyrus are missing. The original edge is only preserved on the left rim, however, strongly frayed. The letter is laid down on a beige textile matte in a dark green wooden frame with gold painted inner frame. The dimensions of the letter are 11.6 x 3 cm (width x height). The total dimensions, including the frame, are 15.3 x 20.8 cm.”

 These are Jenny’s quick notes and comments:

“Beginning of four lines of text, with trace of another line at the top. End of last line preserves epistolary formulae (‘do the [love’ > ‘please’), suggesting this is a letter, which is preceded by at least four lines of text (only a trace of the first survives), including, e.g. the date to the beginning of the month Paremhotep, mention ‘of God on behalf of (?) Mena .[…]’.

The name Phoibammon survives at the beginning of line 4. However, there is nothing to support this as the monastery of Apa Phoibammon at Deir el-Bahri – there is too much lost text between this name and Mena at the end of the previous line. These could be two men.

Also, the description is erroneous in stating that Phoibammon was a monk and founder of a monastery: the monastery of Apa Phoibammon was founded by Apa Abraham, bishop of Hermonthis, at the end of the 6th century / beginning of the 7th. As such, a 6th century date is unlikely, if connected with Thebes. There is nothing here to support a Theban provenance (unless it was actually found there) — the tenuous mention of Phoibammon is insufficient.”

To sum up: the auction house’s expertise is based on a correct grasp on the contents of the fragment, but overstates the interpretation of the name Phoibammon, adding also incorrect information on the founding of the Monastery of Deir el-Bahri. Phoibammon and Menas are in fact two of the commonest male personal name in late antique Egypt. The dating is shaky at best: if it was based on a supposed provenance from the monastery in question, it is misleading because the monastery has a later foundation, as we have seen. As for palaeographical dating, this is a notoriously problematic field, especially for Coptic texts, and not a word is spent in the catalogue to clarify the basis for a supposed 6th century date. As Jenny has pointed out in a following conversation, the handwriting is elementary because the letter was written by an unskilled writer, and this makes it even more difficult to date.

Auctionata’s condition description is carefully crafted; it starts with a bold “The letter is in a very well-preserved condition, considering its age” but as curators and papyrologists know this is just a tiny scrappy fragment (11 x 3 cm); we have thousands and thousands of them stored in collections all over the world. Certainly this is an important piece of our past that must be preserved with care, but there is nothing special about it at all.

The way the auction house attempts to connect it with a famous Christian religious figure highlights how important the Christian manuscript market has become; not a new phenomenon, but certainly one that is increasing as the major enterprise of the Green family’s Museum of the Bible, and the new book and other enterprises of the Christian preacher Josh McDowell in the field of manuscript collecting (and mummy cartonnage dissolving…) demonstrate.

Let’s move on to report on my email conversation about provenance with Auctionata’s helpful and very kind personnel. The first answer to a direct question on the point was simply as follows:

“Lot 146 was part of the collection Bruno Wertz, a high class German private collection. All items of this collection have superb museum quality.”

I thanked them, and explained that what I was asking for was more precise information on documents proving that the papyrus left Egypt legally, or at least before 1972 (that a piece left Egypt before that date does not necessarily mean that it was legally exported, a point people tend easily to forget…). This was the prompt answer:

“We had the possibility to talk with our consignor regarding the documents and the provenance. Unfortunately I have to inform you that we do not have any documents. The Coptic Letter comes from the private collection of Bruno Wertz, who confirmed that the object was bought in the 1960s. Please be aware that we provide every single buyer with our Auctionata Guarantee for all items purchased through Auctionata. The Auctionata Guarantee will apply for a period of 25 years from time to (sic) handover of the purchased item.”

So I checked the guarantee available online; it covers the abovementioned period but provenance is not mentioned anywhere in the terms, or at least I was unable to find it. From the email it seemed that Mr Wertz had confirmed somewhere that he acquired the piece in the 1960s; therefore I asked for an affidavit from him or the present owner stating when and where the pieces were purchased. In fact it could be absolutely plausible that Mr Wertz legally bought a papyrus and other Egyptian antiquities (other pieces were in fact auctioned online recently) in the 1960s without taking care about provenance documents. I have talked with collectors and dealers in these months; as many academics, dealers and collectors too have started paying attention to provenance documents only recently, in most cases in absolute good faith, as a result of the increasing public awareness of the issues at stake, especially after the Unesco convention enforcement in 1972. Auctionata’s answer, however, was brief and depressing:

“We’ve contacted the consignor again, but unfortunately we won’t receive any documents about the provenance.”

The fact that no affidavit would be provided, and the only guarantee is that of Auctionata, which totally ignores the provenance aspect, does not look positive for a potential purchaser.

To conclude: Are you the one who bought the papyrus? Well I am sorry for you, but this was certainly not a good choice and investment.

You have a tiny and scrappy papyrus, written in a very bad handwriting, without a date, without the monk you thought to have and what is worse without documented provenance! If someone will claim the papyrus back one day or Egypt will ask for repatriation, the Auctionata guarantee will probably count for nothing, because provenance seems not to be mentioned among its clauses.

Honestly, far better to have invested those 1,200 euros in a holiday, a decent coat or bag, or – why not? – in a donation to a museum or a library, or else in finding a better papyrus in terms of conservation, contents and provenance, if you really wanted to hang one on the wall – which by the way you cannot do unless the glass is ultraviolet filtered and the room under constant humidity and temperature control. So why not go for a contemporary painting for your empty wall instead? I have a couple of names: nice stuff and a good investment too. Next time you have the impulse, just join me on my Saturday shopping trip and I’ll take control of the money; you won’t be disappointed…

A trip to Rome (with a detour on eBay). A Review of Verbum Domini II

The entrance to Verbum Domini II

The entrance to Verbum Domini II

I spent Easter with family in Italy and took a train to Rome for visiting a very interesting exhibition, Verbum Domini II, organized by the Museum of the Bible, the organization in charge of the traveling exhibitions of biblical artifacts in The Green Collection. About 200 items related to the history of the Bible are on display in the Braccio di Carlo Magno in Vatican City until next June 22. The exhibition is free, which is understandable since the mission of Mr. Green is that of bringing the Word of God to the world. Objects range from fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Complete Lunar Bible, a microfilm in gold frame that went on the moon on Apollo 14. In eleven sections, the exhibition informs the visitor on the media, languages, and ways through which the Bible was transmitted to the people all over the world from the moment it was recorded. A catalogue co-authored by Jennifer Atwood, Rory P. Crowley, Jonathan Kickpatrick and David Trobisch, offers a detailed analysis of the pieces on display according to the different sections, from the Jewish and Greek roots of the Bible to the mission on the moon, with nice images.

Very few pieces on display are borrowed from museums or libraries, mainly but not exclusively the Vatican collections; the vast majority of them belong to the Green Collection. It is impressive to visualize the size and richness of this recently formed private collection. From what I have understood through the web, Mr. Green has been able to buy about 40,000 items related to the history of the Bible in few years (2009-2012) and I imagine acquisitions are still on going.

The history recounted through the showcases is a triumphal one. The Bible travelled fast in the context of the Roman Empire, and beyond, surviving the contraction of alphabetization of the Middle Ages. Later on translations in vernacular and national languages, and the development of printing technologies, increased the opportunities for the Book to be known worldwide. Bibles for children and abridged versions of biblical narratives improved alphabetization in the Word of God; at the same time the Bible was often the schoolbook for people to learn to write and read. Despite the variety of texts and artifacts assembled, and the narrative developed through them, I believe that in fact the history of the Bible is much more interesting and multifaceted than that narrated by Verbum Domini II. For example, alternative books or versions of the Bible have been written by minority or less powerful groups from antiquity onwards. The Bible has been interpreted, shaped, written, re-rewritten and transmitted in various, and often contrasting ways. As Egyptian papyrus and parchment findings from the end of the 19th century onwards have shown us, Jesus’s followers recorded different stories, and organized themselves around different traditions, beliefs, rites and writings. The amount of Christian literature related with the canonical, Biblical literature is much wider than that presented in this exhibition. The Green narrative is also sanitized from violence, except when exercised against Christian missionaries. An interesting section is devoted to the killing in Ecuador of five American evangelical missionaries who went to spread the Word of God among the Huaroni in 1953, the so-called Operation Auca covered by a famous photography reportage on Life magazine. This episode has had a great influence on Christian evangelical missionary ideology and practices. One of the Green companies, Every Time Entertainment, has released two films on it: the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, and the adventure movie End of the Spear.

However nothing is said, for instance, of the violence exercised by Christian missionaries in South America (just to remain in the area), or the distorted, instrumental and discriminatory reading and uses of the Bible made by monarchies and dictatorships in the course of history. It is understandable that an organization with a Christian evangelical mission, and the Vatican, which is so much part of this story, read and present the history of the Bible in this way. As Steve Green explains talking about his family and the items in their collection in an interview (Les Enluminures, Autumn 2013, p.32): “We are storytellers first, and these items tell a story…We’re buyers of items to tell the story. We pass on more than we buy because it doesn’t fit what we are trying to tell.” I understand you need to operate choices when you collect, and I believe that everybody is free to tell his version of the story of the Bible. Nonetheless as an ancient historian I am not fully convinced that what I have seen in Vatican City is a balanced, historical-critical analysis of the history of the Bible, and more broadly of Christianity. I do think that Christian (and non Christian) audiences (and collectors, scholars, etc.) have no reason to be frightened by their complicated, fascinating history, ‘heretical’ and violent sides included.

Since my interest in papyrology, I focused my attention especially on the first sections, which contain spectacular pieces. A leaf from the Codex Vaticanus, on loan from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, offers the visitor the rare opportunity to take a close look to one of the two most ancient complete copies of the Bible in Greek (the other is the Codex Sinaiticus, in the British Library). A facsimile of the entire codex gives an idea of its ancient shape. There are also some Bodmer papyri. P. Bodmer XIV (P75), also on loan from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, bears the end of the Gospel of John and the beginning of Luke. This papyrus, together with Bodmer XV, was presented to Pope Benedict XVI by the American magnate Frank J. Hanna II in 2007, after the Bodmer Foundation sold it not without critics from the scholarly community. Thanks to this exhibition, I have learnt that the Green Collection has bought some Bodmer papyri too. On display there are five leaves of P. Bodmer XXIV, a Psalter dated to the 3rd-4th century AD, formerly in Geneva and now part of the Green Collection (GC.MS.000170.4-8, Catalogue pp. 19-21). The purchase must have taken place before 29 February 2012, because I retrieved on the web an interesting article and an image of Scott Carroll, former director of the Green Collection, with what seems to be a glazed page of the Word of God in its Bodmer version. Another ancient manuscript the Greens have been able to secure recently for Oklahoma City, later to be moved to Washington, is the famous Codex Climaci Rescriptus, on display with an iPad showing the fantastic results they obtained with multispectral imaging and computer technologies.

So far the exhibition’s superstar pieces. But I must confess that the fragment which attracted my attention mostly is number 28 in the catalogue (GC.MS.000462, p. 42 with figure 26). This is a humbler papyrus fragment from a codex page containing lines from Galatians 2 in Sahidic Coptic. The label reports that the item dates to the 5th-6th century AD and is undergoing research with the Green Scholar Initiative (as most of the items in the exhibition). I remembered this piece well, because it was noticed by Brice C. Jones among those put on sale on eBay from a Turkish account (MixAntik) in October 2012. At that time, Brice wrote a post about it on his blog, and there were reactions from people alerting on the legal issues concerning this selling. Dorothy L. King has also written on this and other fragments posted on eBay by MixAntik in her blog more than once. I have contacted Brice, who is going to write on this bit of the story in his blog soon.

In sum, I really recommend a visit to Verbum Domini II: it is exciting to see assembled together items not so easily accessible to the general public, and I do encourage all of you to go and make discoveries as interesting as mine. Certainly some questions are waiting for public answers at this point: Did the Greens buy GC.MS.000462 directly from the eBay Turkish seller MixAntik or whatever it is called? If not, who did sell it to them? Can we be informed about the terms of this purchase, since there were legal questions posed at that time? As Steve Green explains in the abovementioned interview (p. 36) “A person has a better understanding of the artifact the more they [sic] know about its story …”: I am sure that the Museum he is sponsoring in Washington D.C. will inform visitors on the ancient and the modern story, including acquisition circumstances, of each artifact. Waiting for the opening, I would be grateful for now just to be told from where GC.MS.000462 comes from.

The Coptic Manuscripts of Monsieur Dujardin and the Crawford Collection in the John Rylands Library, Manchester

The Coptic Manuscripts of Monsieur Dujardin and the Crawford Collection in the John Rylands Library, Manchester.

Posted by Alin Suciu, you can read about the formation of the John Rylands Library Coptic manuscripts collection via the Earl of Crawford’s acquisitions on the antiquity market.