“Property of a gentleman”: The market of ancient manuscripts and the problem of provenance

Roberta Mazza on cultural artifacts as commodity

“The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.”

Bettany Hughes, “Lover, Poet, Muse and a Ghost Made Real,” The Sunday Times, 2 February 2014

“An undocumented antiquity is one that has poor or only recent evidence of its ownership history (provenance) and how it was obtained. The term is also often used more specifically in voluntary codes of museums and professional associations to indicate an antiquity whose existence out of the country of discovery is not documented before 1970 (the date of adoption of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) or which was not legally obtained and exported from its country of discovery after 1970.”

P. Gerstenblith,  “Do Restrictions on Publication of Undocumented Texts Promote Legitimacy?” in: M.T. Rutz, M. Kersel, Archaeologies of Texts: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, Oxbow: Hevertown 2014, 216.

I am a papyrologist. Besides teaching Classics and Ancient History, I study and take care of my University’s collection of papyri, stored in the John Rylands Library of Manchester.  If you come visit the library (and you should since it is an architectural gem) you’ll see the most famous of all our papyri: P 52 (aka P.Ryl. III 457), thought to be the most ancient extant fragment of the New Testament. A tiny scrap coming from a codex page, on which few lines of chapter eighteen of the Gospel of John appear, P 52 is the only item of the entire Library’s collections to be on permanent display for the great religious value many visitors attribute to it. There are people coming to Manchester just to see our fragment of John’s gospel. The quest for the original text of the Bible and “true” Christianity, deemed to reside in the mythical era of the origins, has a lot to do with the aura of this manuscript. You might even wonder, is this a manuscript or a relic?

Like many other European collections, the John Rylands’ was all purchased on the Egyptian antiquities market between ca. 1901 and 1920, when it was still possible and legal to buy and export antiquities from the country. Acquisitions for the Library were mainly made through the agency of papyrologists who travelled to Egypt in search of papyri to be brought back to Europe through archaeological excavations and purchases on the legal, and sometimes the illegal, antiquities market. In those years the borders between licit and illicit purchases were blurred: there were laws for the protections of antiquities in Egypt, but the booming of tourism and collecting became occasions to earn easy money for dealers foreign and local. The colonial political environment allowed powerful Europeans and Americans to bend the laws to their advantage. Letters and travel diaries of past generations of papyrologists and Egyptologists show that they often felt entitled to save manuscripts from the fellahin (“peasants”) or other “natives,” as the Egyptians were called, who were considered unable to appreciate the true importance of the papyri in their possession. The rescue mission was a moral imperative when the papyri in question preserved Classical and Biblical texts, which were – and still are – seen as the cultural foundation of the West. Scholars and students behaved exactly as their home country’s politicians, ruling colonized nations. Colonial political and cultural powers denied Egypt the possibility to become a nation, and at the same time they robbed Egypt of centuries of her past.

Almost a century has passed from the acquisition of the Rylands fragment: what has changed in the meanwhile? Is the West still obsessed with Classical and Biblical manuscripts? And what about the manuscripts market? Are the borders between licit and illicit any clearer than in the years of the first wave of discoveries?

Nowadays, national and international laws strictly regulate the acquisition and export of antiquities from Egypt. Since 1983 any antiquity, including manuscripts, found in Egypt belongs to the State. Moreover, most academic and museum associations take 1972, the date of the enforcement of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, as an ethical watershed for the acquisition and study of manuscripts and other cultural objects. So it would seem basically impossible to gather a collection of papyri from the current market, where in theory little could appear apart those pieces exported before the issuing of stricter laws and regulations. Nonetheless, we have recently witnessed Egyptian manuscripts of (at best) unclear provenance emerging from collections and being published by academics without too much concern for the legal and ethical issues involved.

A few examples: In February 2014, papyrologist Dirk Obbink announced the exceptional discovery of new verses of Sappho preserved on a papyrus fragment in the hands of a London collector, who wished to remain anonymous. In the media frenzy, most classicists forgot to ask about the provenance of the artefact, which was not even mentioned in the first academic publication the following April. On the contrary, the publication methods alarmed greatly archaeologists and some papyrologists, who asked for clarification on the collection history of the new Sappho. Contradictory information was scattered throughout various articles: the fragment was first described as coming from mummy cartonnage. Later the purported mummy cartonnage became “industrial cartonnage,” and its dismounting in order to recover writings (a practice which has a high impact on the artefact and should be carefully performed and documented through images and written files) was said to have been carried out by the collector, apparently a business man, and his team. In fact, there was more than one Sappho fragment, divided between the anonymous London collector and another well-known American collection of recent formation, that possessed first by the Green family, the Oklahoma City owners of Hobby Lobby, and later donated in part (however, not the Sappho’s fragments) to the non-profit Museum of the Bible.

Eleven months after the first announcement of the discovery of the new Sappho and the many polemics surrounding their provenance, Dirk Obbink provided some details in a collected volume dedicated to the new poems: “As reported and documented by the London owner of the Brothers and Kypris Song fragment, all of the fragments were recovered from a fragment of papyrus cartonnage formerly in the collection of David M. Robinson and subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. It was one of the two pieces flat inside a sub-folder (sub-folder ‘E3’) inside a main folder (labelled ‘Papyri Fragments; Gk.’), one of 59 packets of papyri fragments sold at auction at Christie’s in London in November 2011.”

These details, however, were and still are undocumented statements because nobody except a few interested parties has ever seen the documents proving such acquisition history. To questions about the presence of the cartonnage in that lot, Christie’s answered that they do not keep images of lots’ contents and so there is no way to document it. Despite Obbink declaring in an interview with Live Science on January 23, 2015, that the plan was to make images and acquisition history documents related to the new Sappho available online, over two years later we are still waiting for this to happen. The same can be said of the ca. 1,000 papyri in the Green collection: in November 2014, at a debate that took place at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, the director of that collection, David Trobisch, stated that a database with details on acquisition history and provenance documents would be available online by the following December. So far, no such database is available. Moreover, to my recent request to access those purchase documents, Jeff Kloha (Green and Museum of the Bible Director of Collections Operations) answered: “The Green Collection does not make acquisition documents available publicly, for any item in its collection. Therefore, I must decline your request.” Why all this secrecy about these fragments, considering that they are said to come from a legitimate Christie’s auction?

A lesson recently learned from the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” affair is that we should not blindly trust collectors and academics reporting acquisition histories when new Egyptian manuscripts emerge on the market. Announced as an extraordinary discovery in 2012 by professor Karen King, after years of hot (and very entertaining, I must say) debates, the Coptic papyrus mentioning a wife of Jesus was exposed as fake in a compelling journalistic investigation published by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic of July/August 2016. Sabar demonstrated that all of the documents produced by the (at that time anonymous, nowadays well-known) owner are also forgeries. The ability of dealers and even museum and auction houses curators to fabricate false acquisition documents is a well-known problem to experts in the field of art crime – a phenomenon which, however, has been far too easily overlooked by papyrologists and other academics.

But perhaps the most fascinating and intricate case of all is that of the Artemidorus papyrus, now held in the Museum of Antiquities of Turin. The long roll, which contains a geography text attributed to the Hellenistic author Artemidorus of Ephesus, drawings of human bodies and fantasy animals, and a sketch of an ancient map, emerged from the antiquities market in the early nineteen-nineties. Papyrologists whispered for years about the existence of this extraordinary artefact, which nobody dared to acquire on account of the price asked and its unclear provenance. Finally, the roll was purchased in 2004 by an Italian bank for the extraordinary sum of 2.75 million euros and destined to be on public display at the Egyptian Museum of Turin. While at the center of an exhibit and other events in occasion of the Winter Olympics of 2006, the papyrus was proclaimed to be a forgery by Italian classicist Luciano Canfora. Endless debates, and frankly ridiculous academic feuds, have followed that first statement by Canfora, without anyone pretending an exhaustive answer to the key question at stake: where did that extraordinary papyrus roll come from? Where are the documents attesting the collection history of the cartonnage Konvolut, dismounted by papyrologists and conservators in Germany well before being sold by the anonymous owner (Mr. Serop Simonian), who was first defined as a collector and benefactor, and later revealed to be a famous dealer based in Hamburg? As in the case of the New Sappho fragments, also the details of the Artemidorus roll’s collection history were revealed well after its first presentation to the public and remain so far undocumented, in the sense that once again only the dealer, the acquirer, and possibly the papyrologists who published the text have seen them. In my opinion, professional ethics would require anyone working with the papyrus to disclose collection history documents, especially considering that according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in November 2015, a criminal investigation concerning the acquisition of the papyrus had been opened.

While all these and other papyrus accounts might entertain the public and give academics that Indiana Jones feeling caused by media exposure, the stories in fact show that ancient Egyptian manuscripts are at risk, and that collecting and the antiquities market play an important role in the threat. If papyri wouldn’t be searched for by unscrupulous collectors, unscrupulous dealers wouldn’t buy them illegally from middlemen operating in Egypt and elsewhere. Moreover, local looters wouldn’t be pillaging archaeological sites in search for objects to be sold for little money to those abovementioned middlemen. These looters might be nasty killers like those who in 2016 shot dead three Egyptian guardians at the archaeological site of Dayr al-Barsha. When considering to buy or publish a manuscript recently surfaced from the antiquities market, one better think about what may lie behind it and research its provenance very carefully.

To conclude: Rather than cultural heritage objects to be protected and valued for generations to come, papyri like other antiquities have been too often perceived as means to make money and to be used for purposes that are far from noble. It is time to call for higher ethical standards from academics, dealers, and collectors, including institutions such as museums and libraries. Ancient manuscripts may be in the ownership of private collectors and institutions of various kinds, but in reality they are part of a collective cultural heritage that belongs to humanity. We have the right to demand that they are handled with care in order to be preserved for generations to come.

Roberta Mazza teaches Graeco-Roman material culture and papyrology at the University of Manchester. She is currently completing a book on large estates in Byzantine Egypt under contract with Cambridge University Press.