Friday, 23 January 2015

Sappho Pap. Obbink: Further Painting into Corners

Painted into a corner
 "In several interviews with Live Science, Obbink responded to some of the questions that still lingered over the papyrus' provenance" (Megan Gannon, 'Sappho's New Poems: The Tangled Tale of Their Discovery' Live Science January 23, 2015) "Obbink [...]  thinks there is an explanation to most of the questions that have cropped up in the blogosphere". Good.To my eye his new account (especially taken with his other three) raises more issues than it resolves. I'd like to be convinced that he's actually read and understood what is being questioned in the blogosphere. From what I see here, he has not. What we are now offered is indeed a (very) "tangled tale".
[bla bla] In November 2011, a group of 59 packets of Greek and Coptic papyrus fragments went up for auction at Christie's in London. The late archaeologist David M. Robinson had originally purchased the papyri from a dealer named Maguid Sameda in Cairo in 1954, before international and Egyptian laws prohibited such artifacts from leaving Egypt. Robinson bequeathed his collection to the University of Mississippi, but the school deaccessioned the papyri in the 1980s [...] The lot sold for 7,500 British pounds, or about $11,400. [...] Obbink said he knew the Sappho papyrus had a legal, documented provenance all along.  "There's no question in my mind about where the piece came from," Obbink told Live Science. "I can absolutely guarantee that there's no question about that."
Hmm. But the lot DID NOT consist only of Robinson papyrii, only some of them came from his collection, the rest were from an unstated pre-2011 source, or several. So which is which and how do we know? Note that Obbink implies here that the Anonymous London Collector outbid Mr Green and had bought the entire Chritie's lot (so where does that leave the Galatians purchase?)
Obbink said the anonymous buyer called to ask for advice a couple of months after the auction, in January 2012. The new owner wanted to know if some of the compressed bits of papyri could be identified without peeling the layers apart. Obbink said he went to see the packets for himself later that month. One small chunk of cartonnage appeared to contain multiple layers of papyrus, with fragments peeling off from the outside, Obbink said. The anonymous owner — who is a businessman, not a professional collector or academic — had his staff dissolve the tiny stack in warm water. From that pile, they found a folded-up, postcard-size manuscript with lines of text in ancient Greek. When Obbink later read the text, he said he knew he was looking at poems by Sappho. As soon as I read the first line, with the meter and the name of Sappho's brother, I immediately knew what this was," he said.
So, while-you-wait cartonnage destruction? By the way, by the time the formalities at Christie's had been settled and the items were in the Anonymous London Investor's collection, it was not "a couple of months" before Obbink saw them in January to offer advice about separating the layers. At the most a couple of weeks - in which time the buyer had already started - according to Obbink - to split the collection up, via - if we are to believe Obbink's new version - an intermediate dealer (see here). But then the confusion starts:
Some time between the 2011 Christie's sale and Obbink's identification of the poems as Sappho's, the anonymous owner had traded about 20 smaller fragments from the same piece of cartonnage where the Sappho papyrus was pulled from. These fragments, which the owner deemed insignificant, made their way through the London market into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City. [...] Obbink shot down any theories that the Green Collection was somehow linked to the anonymous collector in London. He said the London collector does not know the Greens, and the fragments were traded through at least one intermediary dealer. 
But then we were just told that it was only when Obbink was there that the papyrus 'stack' was dismantled to produce these pieces (see here too 'a group of twenty-some smaller fragments extracted  from this piece, being not easily identified or re-joined....'). So how was this sale to the Green collection organized? Did Dr Carroll or other agent of Mr Green come to London to see the 20 pieces smaller than a fingernail that had dropped off the cartonnage fragment and buy them without buying the 'mother lode' from which they'd come? What else did he buy on this trip? Why did Anonymous London Businessman Investor (note how Obbink now stresses he was not a collector) ask Obbink's opinion about the piece when Mr Green's agent - if it was Carroll, no stranger to papyrus mining from cartonnage - had been there days before? Can we see the documentation of Mr Green's purchase of these fragments? When did the sale take place? As for the Bettany Hughes version discussed here earlier:
Obbink characterized Hughes' story as a "fictionalization" and an "imaginative fantasy."
"Bettany Hughes never saw the papyrus," Obbink said. "I never discussed the ownership with her. She published the story without consulting me." (Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.) 
But had Hughes discussed the papyri with the owner after the sale?  Or was she making the whole lot up? [UPDATE Bettany Hughes has since reasserted on her Twitter account that she has indeed seen the papyrus and was 'sworn to secrecy' about somwething...]


David Gill said...

Please can I repeat two key questions?
"When was the fragment placed in the sub-folder? Who placed it there?"

Paul Barford said...

If it was there in November 2011, why was the lot described by Christie's as papyri and not papyri and cartonnage?

There are a whole load of questions about this third story.

David Knell said...

"If it was there in November 2011, why was the lot described by Christie's as papyri and not papyri and cartonnage?"

Exactly! Christie's are usually pretty thorough in their lot descriptions.

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