The eBay experience

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It is a while that I am chasing my Turkish friend Mixantik-Ebuyerrrr, who is selling his papyrus fragments and other merchandise via eBay since 2008. Although he likes to call himself Robert, we actually know that this is not his real name; soon or later we will delve into his interesting story. But never mind, today I’d like to talk about the e-commerce platform through which Robert and others can freely and easily offer their manuscripts and other antiquities for sale in a very convenient way. Convenient for buyers, sellers and above all for those who own the platform in question: eBay is listed 310 in the 2017 Fortune list of the 500 world leading companies. It is hard to quantify the overall amount of antiquities (licit and illicit, genuine and fake) which are exchanged through the platform, but to give you an idea of the size and profit margins, today there are 1,531 Egyptian antiquities and 3,974 antique (sic) manuscripts on sale through the UK platform, only to mention objects at the centre of my interest.

So let us consider the case of a responsible collector looking for papyri on eBay. Among the fragments recently on sale there have been two offered by luck_button, a user active since 26 September 2003 and based, as my friend Robert, in Turkey. As you can see from the screenshot above and checking the link (papyrus 1, papyrus 2), the seller specifies with a bizarre sense of pride that there is no provenance or document on any of the two. I do not want to give my expertise on the scraps, so I am afraid but I won’t tell you anything about their date, writing, if they are genuine, etc. I am just concentrating on matters of legality and ethics, which should come first.

Turkey has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970 in 1981 and as a consequence has put very strict legislation in place for the protection of its cultural heritage. The main law for the protection of antiquities was issued in 1983; antiquities are ownership of the State, their commerce is illegal and penalties are harsh. It is fresh news that a British tourist trying to bring back ancient coins, which he found while snorkelling, is now detained in Turkey. In our case, however, the papyrus fragments are not from Turkey, but are originally from Egypt; their legal status could seem ambiguous. Nevertheless, since Mr luck_button is openly stating that they are unprovenanced and there are no documents on the acquisition history of the fragments, what is happening has high probability to be illegal and the fragments look like illicit fragments in transit through Turkey. Moreover, the seller candidly explains that he sends the merchandise through the standard Turkish post, as he has clearly done so far on the basis of his trade-history: what about customs duties? In a world where nations seem to have the less and less resources to control borders, it has become quite simple to send things around without any systematic check on the contents of packages. Never mind issues of conservation etc.

So in the light of this far from reassuring picture, a responsible collector would certainly avoid buying the fragments and would try, instead, to contact eBay in order to alert them on the situation. Here problems start. Any item on sale could be reported through a form that you should fill according to some pre-existent, standard criteria. In fact, none of them really fit to antiquities. Anyway, I made an experiment filling the form as best as I could few days ago. Nothing has happened and in the meanwhile the fragments have been sold to two anonymous irresponsible collectors: one for 512 and the other for 141 dollars.

e-Bay policies on the sale of antiquities varies from one country to another, in view of the different legislation regulating the market and approaches towards cultural heritage protection. For instance, eBay Germany policy openly forbids the selling of antiquities without accompanying documents regarding their acquisition history . The policy of eBay US seems less restrictive, or at least not so explicit, and gives some specific guidelines only regarding Native American cultural heritage. As for the UK, to my knowledge the only attempt made to regulate the nature of the antiquities sold on eBay concerns exclusively UK archaeological finds. This seems a narrow minded, nation-focussed approach for a country with a rich legal (and illegal) patrimony of antiquities originating from other countries on its territory, as a result of its imperial past, and a thriving antiquities market more in general.

As an academic who feels responsible of the objects I study, I had been able in the past to get in contact directly with the eBay policy office and they usually act quickly when some bids are flagged as potentially illegal. But it is clear that more proactive and structural measures should be put in place to tackle the problem.

The reality is that everything seems allowed because too many collectors/dealers, as the two who purchased the papyri at the centre of this post, do not respect the laws and ethics underpinning such exchanges (before you even start with a pointless counter-argument, I am afraid to say that no, darling, eventual ignorance of the laws does not excuse them). Moreover, eBay policies enforcement seems inefficient at best, and police active control is also low, even more so in the UK where the Art and Antiques Unit seems to be under threat of closure. Despite all the rhetoric on heritage preservation, and the amount of public money put in various programs, the truth is that this kind of everyday unregulated and unethical (when not illegal) market is slowly killing our cultural heritage in the open and apparently with the consent of everyone implied in the transactions.

Bibliography note:

I learnt a lot from reading J. Anglim Kreder, J. Nintrup, “Antiquity meets the modern age: eBay’s potential criminal liability for counterfeit and stolen international antiquity sale” Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet 5 (2014) 143–178 and N. Brodie, “The Internet Market in Antiquities” in F. Desmarais ed. Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods: The Global Challenge of Protecting the World’s Heritage Paris: ICOM 2015.

 

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Faith after the Pharaohs: Christianity and the Rylands Gospel of Mary

Our Gospel of Mary (P.Ryl. 3 463) is currently on loan to the British Museum exhibit Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs. In the video below you can listen at me talking about the importance of papyrus findings for the understanding of early Christianity (or better: early Christianities), and above all you can see the fragment itself as recently restored by the excellent John Rylands Library conservation department.

I have written about this fragment offering my own translation in a previous post.

Making the Mummies Talk (without Palmolive soap!)

Checking potential samples for the project with Alice Stevenson (Petrie Museum-UCL) and Kathryn Piquette (UCL)

Checking potential samples for the project with Alice Stevenson (Petrie Museum-UCL) and Kathryn Piquette (UCL) at the Petrie Museum, London.

As the readers of my blog know, I have been following the amazing adventures of Scott Carroll, former director of the Green collection and now partner of Ancient Asset Investments, and his friends dissolving Ptolemaic and early Roman mummy masks in Palmolive soap with the strange idea to retrieve New Testament manuscripts, but in fact finding some administrative Ptolemaic documents and Greek literary fragments as a result of their washing up. We will possibly have more precise information about what was inside the artefacts when the first volume of the Green papyri will be published, with the hope to receive also explanations on the methods employed for the dismounting, and on the provenance of the masks and cartonnage, especially after we learnt that Iraq clay tablets from the Green collection have been seized and are under investigation by the federal authorities.

As it often happens in research, some good came as a result of what happened. Public concern raised by the Palmolive Indiana Jones YouTube exploits has pulled together a multidisciplinary team of specialists lead by Melissa Terras (UCL) and Mike Toth (R.B. Toth Associates), including myself among others, that has received funds from Arcadia Foundation to investigate how special imaging techniques, such as multispectral technology, can lead to the establishment of non invasive methods for reading papyri encapsulated in mummy masks and other cartonnage objects. We named the project Making the Mummies Talk.

Sorting out cartonnage samples at the Petrie Museum

Sorting out cartonnage samples at the Petrie Museum

The work of the team has just begun. There are a number of challenges we are facing, ranging from conservation issues to the little information available so far on the compositions of ancient inks and how they respond to the different imaging techniques we are going to apply. But we are convinced that the project will be a decisive step forward into finding ways not only to avoid the destruction of ancient artefacts in the future, but also to gather data on their material features and freely share them for study. Classicists and other specialists have tended too often to focus only on the texts written on ancient papyri and other materials, overlooking other key aspects of ancient manuscripts, such as the quality of the papyrus employed, ink compositions and other means involved in their production, and their multiple lives as books or documents first, and later as recycled materials for the fabrication of something different.

This project will also allow us to evaluate what impacts past conservation techniques used in museums and libraries, or by dealers, had on the objects under study. While working with Mike Toth at the John Rylands Library, for example, we obtained some interesting information on the tax receipt on the back of the so-called Last Supper Rylands amulet: besides the text of the receipt otherwise unreadable, multispectral imaging brought to light traces of cell-tape unfortunately employed in the past on the papyrus surface, the effects of which were, however, invisible to the naked eye.

P.Ryl.Greek Add. 1166 back: the lighter stripes visible especially on the left half of the papyrus match with cell tape that was found in an envelope with the papyrus.

P.Ryl.Greek Add. 1166 back: the lighter stripes visible especially on the left half of the papyrus match with cell tape that was found in an envelope with the papyrus. Images were taken before conservation.

 

Speaking of Prices: The Wyman Fragment

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby's catalogue

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby’s catalogue

On the 3rd of July 1950, Leland C. Wyman, a professor at Boston University, bought a small fragment of parchment with Greek writing on it in Cairo. According to the dealer, the fragment had been found by some local people in al-Fusṭāṭ, a story which might or might not be true as correctly noted by the first editor, W.H.P. Hatch.

The parchment, which has received different palaeographical dating ranging from the second half of the second century to the second half of the fourth century AD, bears some lines from Paul’s Romans chapters 4 and 5 attesting interesting variants. It is registered as 0220/20220 in the official list of New Testament manuscripts.

The Wyman fragment was sold through Sotheby’s, London twice: in 1988 by Wyman’s heirs and in 2012 by the 1988 purchaser, the Norwegian businessman and collector Martin Schøyen. At the first auction (21 June 1988, lot 47) the fragment had an estimate of £ 15.000-20.000, but reached the final price of £ 95.000. A similarly high increase was obtained at the 2012 auction, when from the estimate £ 150,000-200,000 the price went up to £ 301,250. The sum in this last case was paid by the Green family, who have later donated the manuscript to their Museum of the Bible.

So what does determine prices of ancient manuscripts these days? I am not entirely sure since as I said already in this blog and elsewhere the market (legal and illegal) is secretive by its own nature and we can collect only partial data on prices through publicly available auctions’ catalogues, or information that collectors and dealers are eventually happy to provide. Certainly those collectors who are opening public museums will be sharing price information; therefore I should add that in order to obtain a clearer picture of the economy surrounding world cultural heritage objects, it would be very helpful to add also appraisals to contrast and compare. We tend to forget that manuscripts and other antiquities are investment goods at the centre of interesting economic besides cultural enterprises that are worth studying.

In any case we may infer that prices are determined by a combination of factors, not necessarily in this order:

  1. The importance of a piece. In the case of the Wyman fragment its Christian content, the early – although debated as above mentioned, see e.g. W. Clarysse and P. Orsini recent re-dating to 350-400 AD – date and its rarity.
  2. Documented provenance. In this case pre-1972 purchase seems to be enough to make everybody happy. But legality on these questions is more a point of view than a firm subject since there was already Egyptian legislation on the antiquities market which was not always respected.
  3. The presence on the market of wealthy collectors as Martin Schøyen and the Green family/Museum of the Bible, who invest large sums of money on acquisitions for various reasons.
  4. Finally, marketing i.e. the way dealers and auction houses pack the merchandise they sell. In this specific case it was an easy job, in view of the contents and features of the fragment and the academic literature produced on it.

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…

Destroying mummy masks: “Since we own, it’s ok”. Maybe not…

A reader of this blog, Beau Quilter, was so nice to edit the long and remarkably boring performance of Josh McDowell on papyri from mummy cartonnage and the truth of the Bible. We now have a two minutes peak that I hope all of you will watch:

I like the words Beau Quilter has added at the end as a comment to a quote of McDowell himself: “Apparently since they own it, it’s ok’.

This sentence underlines two important elements of this sad story. First, the incredible lack of any awareness about the importance of archaeological evidence that this man and others, like Scott Carroll (who apparently dismounted mummy cartonnage for the Green collection and possibly others in the past), demonstrate. The aggressive cultural discourse behind their words and actions would deserve a treatise on its own. People like Josh McDowell and Scott Carroll are a threat not only for the damages they have procured to cultural heritage patrimony, but also for their misuse of ancient manuscripts in public discourses on the Bible. Their faith must be very weak if they need scraps of papyrus in order to prove the value of the Scriptures.

The second element I wish to bring to your attention is that for once there is some truth in what McDowell is saying: from what I have gathered, according to the American and other legislations, the legal owner of an ancient object can dispose of it as he/she wishes. This opens a number of interesting considerations on responsible and irresponsible private collecting that would deserve a longer, separate post. But that ownership must be legal: if it comes out that the object was bought illegally, in this case that the mask does not have clear provenance, everything changes. In principle, the legal owner of these destroyed masks could pursue McDowell and other iconoclasts, and the dealers who sold the objects, in order to be compensate for the loss.

Why Josh McDowell and other owners of antiquities are not revealing names of the dealers they have purchased masks and other cartonnage from, and do not publicly provide documents proving that their acquisitions are legal? Do they fear that the eventual legal owner of those artefacts (e.g. the Egyptian Government) will pursue them in court one day?

Mark strikes back: Mummy cartonnage and Christian apologetics, again…

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

I am just back from the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and planning to report about the interesting discussion we had on issues of provenance. But before that I should report on the resurfacing of the sadly famous papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark from mummy mask cartonnage. In a YouTube video published on 24 July 2014 (below), Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at the Divinity School of Acadia University, reports on a fragment of Mark, allegedly dating to the 80s of the first century AD and in course of publication, retrieved from a mummy mask. In the PowerPoint slide he is commenting on, you can see a mummy mask, although we are not told if the above mentioned papyrus comes from that specific one; any other useful information on the papyrus location and the owner (a private collector?) are as well lacking. This seems to be the same fragment mentioned in the past by Daniel B. Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, although we cannot be 100% sure because nobody answers questions with any clarity. (Sometimes I feel I am talking to members of a gnostic sect rather than Protestant scholars…). In February 2012 the fragment was called into question during a debate between Wallace and Bart Ehrmann; one month later, Wallace posted information on the papyrus as to be published by Brill in his blog. I wrote emails to Wallace in order to know the name of the collection holding the fragment; Brill is the publisher of the Green papyri, but so far I have not been able to understand if this papyrus is in that collection or another one. Dan Wallace has always kindly answered to my emails, but without adding details because, he says, “ I have signed a nondisclosure agreement about the Mark fragment”. Craig Evans’ talk took place at the 2014 Apologetics Canada Conference (7-8 March, Vancouver). It is clear that papyri have officially entered into the rhetoric of apologists as the means through which they sell the idea that we can recover the original texts of the Gospels. These people are not doing any good service to the public and to our cultural heritage patrimony. The audience who attend their talks are told fantasy stories on the retrieval of papyrus fragments and their date, and on the quest for Christian original texts; apologists’ speeches are not only misinformed, but can even encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap – a method suggested publicly by one of them, Josh McDowell, close friend of the ex-director of the Green Collection, Scott Carroll. All this said, I must confess this pseudo-scholarship is procuring me endless, astonished entertainment…

UPDATE 26 November: Professor Evans has kindly informed me via email that this is the same fragment mentioned by Daniel Wallace and it is his understanding that the fragment will be published by Brill in 2015. He cannot answer other questions I posed on the dismounting of the mask “because of various confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements”.

UPDATE 21 January: my last post on the subject with answers to further questions is this: https://facesandvoices.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/mummy-masks-papyri-and-the-gospel-of-mark/

Looting: A Call for Action

In these days we have been given important reports on the illegal market of antiquities from Egypt. If you haven’t yet, read the article by Bel Trew on the Daily Beast and watch this impressive video featuring among others Monica Hanna, a brave Egyptologist who has done a fantastic job in these years to stop looting:

It is remarkable that the mechanics through which the illegal, ongoing antiquity market is flourishing are still those of the colonial era. Dealers exploit the poverty of local populations for obtaining their collaboration, and then at the end of the supply chain they earn a thousand time more than what local looters received. As the authors of the above mentioned reports underline, it is the high demand for antiquities from collectors mostly based in North America, Europe, China and the Gulf that is nurturing these activities. We are still living in the age of empires under many respects.

It is a shame that we, scholars, have the power to help contrasting. We can do two simple things. First, as Erin Thompson has recently reminded us from the pages of the New York Times, we can help changing the mentality of collectors. For instance, if a wealthy collector invites you to collaborate to the formation of a new Museum of the Bible, instead of accepting suggest him to divert his money on helping existent libraries, museums, and cultural institutions to maintain, study and publish their already existent collections. Second, we can ask editorial boards, professional associations, museums and other institutions to enforce stricter rules on the publication and exhibition of Egyptian antiquities of recent acquisition.

If we really think we want the world to change, let’s be the first to change!

Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter

Gospel of Jesus papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

What do Sappho and the wife of Jesus have in common? Both figures are attested, directly or indirectly, in papyri in the hands of anonymous private owners who are reported to have asked two prominent scholars, Dirk Obbink (Oxford) and Karen King (Harvard), to study and publish them. Now, although issues of provenance may certainly arise for pieces in public collection, they become especially delicate in case of pieces from private collections. As I have noticed writing on the London Sappho in a post a couple of months ago, there are not shared, clear guidelines for deciding what to do in such cases, but there are national and international laws to be respected and there are also professional associations’ recommendations to be followed if you are a member. In practice, as I will try to explain, problems start as soon as you ask yourself what legal ownership of antiquities, papyri in this case, means and implies.

How could papyrologists verify that a papyrus has been exported legally from Egypt and then legally purchased by a dealer or collector? This question has kept me busy since a while. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970 is the main guide and threshold to be taken into consideration. It is clear what the convention establishes in principle, but the single nations’ ways and timing of reception varied. Article 21 of the Convention explains that it “shall enter into force three months after the date of the deposit of the third instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession, but only with respect to those States which have deposited their respective instruments on or before that date. It shall enter into force with respect to any other State three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession.” While some nations proceeded to ratification, acceptance or accession immediately, others did not. The United Kingdom, for instance, accepted the convention only on 1 August 2002. The United States of America accepted it on 2 September 1983, with important postils underlining rights of interventions (e.g. “the United States understands the provisions of the Convention to be neither self-executing nor retroactive”). In sum, although the Convention certainly is an ideal threshold since its promulgation, there have been different ways in which its principles have been applied in practice.

And what about Egypt’s legislation? This regulated the ownership of antiquities well before the UNESCO convention and its enforcement: a law on the protection of antiquities was issued on 31 October 1951 (law no. 215, emended by laws no. 529 of 1953, no. 24 of 1965, and now superseded by law no. 117 of 1983, emended in 2003). This law set very clear rules forbidding private ownership of movable and immovable antiquities. It also established that whoever accidentally finds movable and immovable antiquities must declare them to the competent authorities (art. 9-11). To my mind this means, for instance, that according to the Egyptian law the finding, and following selling and export of the codex Tchachos (aka Mr Judas gospel), were illegal, since they started in the seventies of last century, i.e. twenty years after the promulgation and enforcement of law no. 215.

I wonder then, should the past and present Egyptian legislation on the protection of antiquities have legal and ethical relevance when deciding about publishing papyri, or not? My personal answer is ‘yes’. Other views on this?

A careful check on the original documents in the hands of the collector is clearly essential; I would not be able to recognize if a modern document is faithful and formally legal, therefore I will need the help of law experts. A colleague I have consulted suggests I may ask the owner to provide an official declaration (an affidavit) on provenance, but would you trust someone you meet for the first time and probably via email or the phone? Then a new problem will have to be solved in case of publication: does my word, the word of an academic, or that of a publisher or a journal’s editorial board suffice for the public to be assured that the provenance of a papyrus is legal? I remember a similar question was posed and never answered in the Oxford forum on the new Sappho poems. I trust my colleagues, but should our professional practices rely only on academic trust and our good behaviours? In other words, what kind of data should we provide in publications on the acquisition of such papyri?

In the case of the London Sappho, Dirk Obbink does not provide any detail on acquisition circumstances and documents in the final publication of what is now called in papyrological language ‘P. Sapp. Obbink’, just out (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189, 2014, 32-49); the merging P. GC. inv. 105, from the Green Collection, is also published without details about its provenance and acquisition circumstances by Obbink, with Simon Burris and Jeffrey Fish (Baylor University), in the same issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (pp. 1-28). In sum, we are left with the short statement that the provenance is legal given in the Times Literary Supplement, and with the unforgettable details, freely available on line, on how the Green collection has been formed in these years (see my post Papyri, the Bible and the formation of the Green Collection, and Brice C. Jones’ old post on odd behaviors in the Green house). Maybe something more will be said in the forthcoming study on the restoration of the papyrus announced by Obbink (p. 32 footnote 2).

In the case of the Jesus wife’s gospel fragment, Karen King provides the following information (Harvard Theological Review, 107/2, pp. 153-154 that I copy with footnotes):

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties. [footnote 105: The amount of the price paid was whited out on the copy I was sent.] A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite.

The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies. One is of an unsigned and undated handwritten note in German, stating the following:

Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage. [Footnote 106: “Professor Fecht glaubt, daß der kleine ca. 8 cm große Papyrus das einzige Beispiel für einen Text ist, in dem Jesus die direkte Rede in Bezug auf eine Ehefrau benutzt. Fecht meint, daß dies ein Beweis für eine mögliche Ehe sein könnte.” The named Professor Fecht might be Gerhard Fecht (1922–2006), professor of Egyptology at the Free University, Berlin.]

If these two documents pertain to the GJW fragment currently on loan to Harvard University, they would indicate that it was in Germany in the early 1960s. [Footnote 107: The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing, measuring approximately 110 by 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John. Fecht is said to have suggested a probable date from the 2nd to 5th cents. c.e. Munro declines to give Laukamp an appraisal of its value but advises that this fragment be preserved between glass plates in order to protect it from further damage. The letter makes no mention of the GJW fragment. The collection of the GJW’s owner does contain a fragment of the Gospel of John fitting this description, which was subsequently received on loan by Harvard University for examination and publication (November 13, 2012).]

In this case, there is a clear effort to give us as more information as possible. Nonetheless are we all satisfied with this level and kind of information? Are they enough to clear issues of provenance and acquisition?

So far on legal provenance and publication of data related to the modern history of the papyri: are there any other, further questions to be considered? Indeed there are, and very important ones.

You are going to inspect a papyrus and will have to decide if to study and publish it, or not: your decision will have consequences on the value of it. For the sake of clarity, let’s consider the specific case of the wife of Jesus fragment in the light of this panorama. We have seen that the price paid for this and the related batch of papyri in 1999 was prudentially whited out in the purchase documentation sent to professor King. Another interesting piece of information on the world of antiquity collectors and dealers is given in an article published in 2012, which I re-read for the occasion. Karen King recounted to the Smithsonian magazine the story of the first approaches from the collector. She was contacted first in 2010, but left the inquiry unanswered until when in 2011 a second email followed (A. Sabar, ‘The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text on Jesus’, The Smithsonian.com, 18 September 2012 available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-inside-story-of-a-controversial-new-text-about-jesus-41078791):

In late June 2011, nearly a year after his first e-mail, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail King shared with me, after stripping out any identifying details. (The collector has requested, and King granted him, anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector didn’t want the fragment to disappear in a private archive or collection “if it really is what we think it is,” he wrote. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it.”

This collector loves his fragments, maybe he believes they increase his proximity to ancient culture (Lucian’s The Ignorant Book Collector is keeping coming back to my mind, it must be that I used it for teaching recently), but he is also well aware of their price – as you read above – and the money he may potentially make and spend in different ways, such as sending the kids to Harvard or Oxford, taking many holidays to the Maldives, buying a house in Tuscany, or maybe purchasing more papyri, in view of his great passion or in case he is a dealer himself. The value of this piece, and I believe also of the rest of the small collection deposited for study in Harvard, has certainly increased from 18 September 2012 (the day the Jesus’s wife fragment was presented in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies) onwards. In short, this was a lucky strike for the owner, whatever his intentions were and are now. At present, it seems that he will leave the papyrus in Harvard for scholars’ consultation, but ownership, and possible future gains, will stay with him, unless he will establish to donate the papyrus to an institution, as he said was an option, or – why not? – to the country the fragment comes from. This reminds me that unless I have missed something, we are still waiting for the Tchachos codex to be moved to Egypt since almost a decade by now. But this is another story, one where a lot of money were involved: read Neil Brodie, ‘The lost, found, lost again and found again Gospel of Judas’, Culture Without Context (19) 2006, 17-27 if you wish to refresh your memory.

It should be mentioned that not only the anonymous owner, but also other people had some benefits from the publication process, directly or indirectly, and in different measures and ways. I imagine the current issue of the Harvard Theological Review will sell more than usual; the production of documentaries (like that of the Smithsonian that you can watch in the French version on YouTube) and other media releases should have involved some money too; academics and other experts who took part to the research process had a return in terms of publicity, career, impact, and consequent visibility, for instance, for potential University donors or, in case of technical laboratories, for similar commissions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with all this, but I wish to stress that although to publish a papyrus or any other ancient artefact legally owned by a private collector is certainly legal, it is not a neutral act: it has consequences on the price of an ancient object in private hands, and involves a number of professional and ethical questions that cannot be ignored, as I tried to show.

Among these questions there is also that of the advancement of knowledge. It is clear that especially when presented with texts of such interest and importance, academics feel the peril to lose the occasion to bring relevant ancient sources to light causing detriment to research. There is some truth in this argument. Imagine Karen King or Dirk Obbink were not fully satisfied with the legal status of the papyri in question, or with the possibility to publish details on them: we would know nothing about these new texts (whatever the results on authenticity issues of the wife of Jesus papyrus will be, the source remains in any case important to the scholarly debate: think about the Secret Gospel of Mark). However, I cannot see how knowledge could overcome the laws in case of papyri of dubious provenance, or prevent us asking ourselves relevant ethical questions connected with the exercise of our profession. I would be really glad to read and discuss cogent counter arguments on these last points.