Opinion

The Illegal Papyrus Trade and What Scholars Can Do to Stop It

In 2012, a remarkable artifact appeared on eBay — and my research into its origins raised troubling questions.

A photograph of the Galatians fragment posted on eBay in 2012 (image provided to Hyperallergic by the author)

In October 2012, a remarkable Coptic papyrus, featuring lines from Paul’s Letter to Galatians, went up for sale on eBay. In the academic community of papyrus experts like myself, furious discussions ensued about the need for a transcript and professional assessment of the fragment. The papyrus was offered by a Turkey-based account, MixAntik, which had been active on eBay since 2008.

When the archaeologist and blogger Dorothy Lobel King contacted the seller, no documentation was provided, and the seller said he did not have an export license. The listing stated only that the fragments came from Egypt and would be shipped from Turkey. The papyrus was listed, and possibly sold, for $14,000; MixAntik vanished and was replaced by a new account, ebuyerrrrr. For almost two years, the Galatians fragment disappeared.

Troubling stories like this have become commonplace — and academics must help change that. Museums and researchers often describe the origins of a particular object — its provenance, or place of discovery and subsequent chain of ownership — with only a few words and a date. This is a huge problem. The way we present provenance affects our ability to authenticate antiquities, their legal status, the professional ethics tied to them, even their price. We must ask difficult questions about the origins of the objects we study.

A photograph of the Galatians fragment posted on eBay in 2012 (image provided to Hyperallergic by the author)

Writings on papyrus, in different languages and reflecting various literary traditions, have surfaced on Egyptian soil since the 19th century. Their early history was a story of colonial exploitation: when Egypt became accessible to Europeans and North Americans, huge quantities of antiquities entered collections worldwide.

Then came post-colonialism, and a growing concern about cultural preservation, leading to the UNESCO interventions in the 1970s. I believe we have now entered a third phase, starting with the Arab revolutions of 2011. Looting has worsened. Illicit excavations and a black market for undocumented antiquities make preservation all the more urgent. This is where provenance research comes in.

In April 2014, by accident, I rediscovered the Galatians fragment in Vatican City. I was at an exhibition organized by the Green Collection, which is owned by the CEO of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, and his family. In a display case, I recognized the papyrus. Its label, and the exhibition catalogue, neglected to report its collection history in any detail. It was simply described as GC.PAP. 462. I started making inquiries about its strange journey.

I spoke to many academics affiliated with the Green Collection, which has now been partly incorporated into the Museum of the Bible. Finally, David Trobisch, then director of the Green Collection — now director of collections at the Museum of the Bible — told me via e-mail that the papyrus was acquired in 2013 from an anonymous trusted dealer, who had provided as provenance a Christie’s auction in 2011.

Exterior of Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC (photo by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic)

As I interpret this chain of events, this means that someone acquired it from Christie’s in 2011, only to sell it one year later through a Turkish eBay account. To this day, this makes no sense to me. A New Testament fragment would be valuable — especially when beautifully packed by an auction house. Why choose eBay instead?

The Green Collection was unable to provide me with documents from the 2011 Christie’s auction. (Hobby Lobby was engulfed in a widely-reported antiquities smuggling scandal last year.) When I contacted Christie’s manuscript curators, they were unable to share pictures or files proving the presence of the fragment in the lot in question.

I assumed that was the end of the trail. It wasn’t. In the spring of 2016, I found out that ebuyerrrrr was again active on eBay, selling more papyri. So I decided to send him a message through the eBay mail system, asking about the source of the papyri advertised. A man called Robert (the same name was provided by MixAntik in 2012) suggested a phone number so that we could speak via WhatsApp. Robert sent me pictures of a bizarre mix of genuine and fake material, for which he never provided any solid provenance — only vague and implausible statements.

So I did a Google search for Robert’s cell-phone number, which led me straight to his real name and address. eBay shut down the account, and I filed a report with the London Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiquities Unit. In light of what has happened since then, I do not recommend entertaining conversations with people of this kind. I have received threats of acid attacks and other abuses. Do not be as silly as I have been: I am not in a nice place at the moment.

Facebook conversations, previously public but now sealed, suggested that the eBay seller was close to Scott Carroll, a man who helped create the two largest private collections of Biblical objects in the US, the Van Kampen and the above mentioned Green collections. Carroll departed the Green in the summer of 2012.

How many of the Green Collection’s thousand or so papyri come from the Turkish dealer in question? And how many of the Green papyri have been donated to the Museum of the Bible? Last year, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine for smuggling artifacts likely for the Museum; now the Museum has released a new and robust policy on acquisition and provenance. But it provides example labels only for papyri whose provenance is unusually well-documented. Why haven’t papyrologists funded by the Green family joined public scholarly conversations about provenance?

Interior of Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC (photo by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic)

“Robert” appears to have supplied also other collections. According to my research, an anonymous Finland-based collector bought papyrus fragments through ebuyerrrrr and other Turkey-based accounts, and has found academics and conservators to research them. Hany Takla, President of the St. Shenouda Coptic Society, has also bought from Turkish accounts and has published a useful report on their “unorthodox” methods. International academic journals have recently published editions from the Finnish collection, now known as P.Ilves (the inventory numbers count over 100 of them).

We academics must help protect the objects we study. Some of my colleagues believe that scholarship comes first, or say that texts have no guilt, so we should be faithful to them. They publish what emerges from the market. I disagree. To publish papyri with suspicious — if not illegal — provenance is unethical. It lends a new identity to those artefacts and feeds the illicit market.

Looting and illicit excavations in Egypt not only destroy the archaeological landscape forever, but also have also caused deaths and injuries to Egyptians, including children, employed to dig in narrow shafts. In 2016, two archaeological guards, Ashrawy and Mustafa Ali, were shot dead by looters in action. And there is good reason to believe that many crimes go unreported in the current political and economic climate. (That said, in the UK, academics who facilitate exchanges of improperly-obtained antiquities can be charged for money laundering.)

So what should we do with all of these suspiciously-sourced fragments? They should be immediately returned to the legitimate owner: Egypt. (Egyptian authorities may eventually reach a deal with the collectors for study and publication before repatriation.) Those who study papyri must exercise due diligence before publishing anything, and academics should exercise an active role in educating collectors and keeping an eye on the market. Would you knowingly buy a stolen bike? Why would you buy — or publish — a stolen manuscript?

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