Sunday 23 November 2014

Dismembering History: The Shady Online Trade in Ancient Texts

holy papyri? Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
There is an interesting article in the daily Beast highlighting the trade in dodgy papyri: 
eBay has become a regular marketplace for antiquities. Previously unknown papyri crop up only to vanish into private collections and out of the sight of scholars forever. Artifacts that—if authentic—could offer priceless glimpses into the past are marketed with the same savvy as a knock-off Burberry scarf: extortionate shipping fees and tantalizingly low opening bids of $0.99. [...]  In the case of many auctions, however, the papyri are completely unprovenanced. In other words, they weren’t found on an archeological dig nor do they have accompanying documents specifying their origins. We don’t know either where they come from or how they got here. None of the eBay auctions are properly documented. Today, a lack of provenance often means one of two things: an artifact is forged or an artifact was illegally acquired. [...] When documentation is unavailable, it is likely that the materials were obtained illegally, often as the result of looting in the wake of military and political unrest.
In many cases dealers buy large pieces or whole manuscripts and then try to maximise profits by selling them in smaller pieces: 
Rather than sell the complete manuscript, they cut out pages and placed them on eBay on an ad hoc basis. [...]  It’s a long-established moneymaking technique among antiquities dealers. [...] Some eBayers are wise to scholarly commitments to complete texts and use them to extort more money for complete manuscripts. In pitching a complete Coptic Lectionary (a liturgical calendar) to him for $20,000, Pattyspreciouspicks told Takla, “If I can’t sell it to you as a whole, then I will unfortunately be forced to sell off each old page one at a time on my eBay site. I really don’t want to cut up this old Coptic religious document…” As Takla notes, “Needless to say he knew that he would not be able to get that asking price whether he sold it intact or by the sheet." 
The article concludes:

Something is clearly amiss in the global antiquities market. eBay is the dark underbelly of the papyrus trade: precious documents are being carved up, potentially stolen goods trafficked, and the materials for forgers readily supplied. If capitalism has taught us anything, it’s that demand creates supply. Until scholars and collectors stop buying, antiquities dealers have no incentive to stop selling.
Candida Moss, 'Dismembering History: The Shady Online Trade in Ancient Texts', The Daily Beast November 23, 2014

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