Sunday 28 December 2014

Papyri on the Market - Telegraph

Philip Sherwell ('The online battle for papyrus texts', Telegraph, 28 Dec 2014) writes of how ancient papyri are "now increasingly hot items in the distinctly 21st Century world of the online auction trade".
A rectangular scrap measuring about 4.5 inches by 1.5 inches and featuring 15 partial lines of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad in the elegant hand of a 4th Century Egyptian scribe was just [DEC] picked up by an unidentified European buyer for £16,000 after a feverish Internet auction battle. That price was way above the posted estimated but is typical of the sums that collectors will now spend to lay their hands on these fingerprints from the past. Indeed, it is not just modern art that has been setting jaw-dropping records at auction recently - so have ancient scrolls. When a fragmentary parchment sheet from the 3rd century AD featuring portions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans was bought at Sotheby’s for £301,000 auctioneers and antiquity experts alike were stunned. But although there is no suggestion of any impropriety in these particular sales, scholars are alarmed by the burgeoning online trade as some unscrupulous sellers also cash in.
I think the first question is what somebody would 'do' with such a fragment. Modern critical editions of the full text of the Iliad and Romans can be bought in both the original and in paperback translations at the local bookstore, and the only thing that comes to mind is that these private buyers display them as some kind of ('instant-erudition-granting') trophies.

Perhaps interest was raised by the Buying spree that led to the formation of collections like that of the Green family, but whatever the reason this has become a lucrative and "free-ranging trade, particularly on the online auction giant eBay, where precious documents are carved up for sale, potentially stolen goods are trafficked and forgers can flourish". Sherwell mentions Brice Jones (papyrologist and lecturer in New Testament and Early Christianity at Concordia University in Montreal) whose online sleuthing has discovered many items that are incorrectly labelled or their provenance unclear. There is also the question of forgeries (the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is mentioned).
Much more distressingly, some sellers are dismembering papyrus books to sell items page-by-page, a financially profitable endeavor that amounts to little more than vandalism of ancient works. One eBay papyrus seller turned out to be two sisters who ran an online beauty supplies store. They had inherited a Book of Revelation from which they cut individual pages to sell on an ad hoc basis to fund the wedding costs for one.
A fragment of 4th Century AD papyrus
of Homer's Iliad, sold by

'Ancient Resources' , "Ex Hamdy Sakr
collection, London, formed in the 1960’s".
The majority of the fragments surfacing on the market are of unclear origin. The manuscript of Homer mentioned above was sold by a seller who claimed they (like a number of other objects he had were from an old collection which he said had belonged to a "Hamdy Sakr", the composition of whose "collection" when reconstructed from what the dealer claims to have from it is - to say the least - thought-provoking). One may well wonder whether it was this same seller (Gabriel Vandervort) contacted by the journalist who is quoted:
However, the owner of a small specialist Internet auction company, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, pushed back against these criticisms. “We are scrupulous about making sure of ownership although not everyone is so fussy and it’s true that there are some people who know nothing who are out trying to make a buck in the wild West of the Internet,” he said. “But some of these archaeologists and purists simply hate the fact that that any private person would own, buy or sell antiquities. “They ignore the fact that items like this have always been collected [...] Collectors play a crucial role in preserving these items with their interest. A lot of these items would remain hidden, forgotten, fading away, unknown to the scholars, if there was not a market for them.” 
Hmmm. First of all, why the owner of a small specialist Internet auction company considers there to be any "sensitivity" in discussing the legitimate antiquities trade and slamming the cowboys remains unclear to me. This should be a matter for open debate and discussion. I am not one of those "archaeologists and purists" who "simply hate the fact that that any private person would own, buy or sell antiquities", and actually know very few who are. There is however a vast difference which dealers and collectors pretend not to see between wanting something 'done properly' and not wanting it to exist at all. I really cannot see why a legitimate dealer, truly dedicated to "making sure of [licit] ownership" would not be in wholehearted agreement with those who want to see collecting done in a licit, ethical, lawful, transparent and responsible manner. Can you?

Again though, we see the object-centred view of the antiquitist apologists. Even the worst and most irresponsible collector with archival-quality storage conditions may play a role in the preservation of the objects. The question is what was destroyed, what associations, what contexts, what information was destroyed  when the object became 'ungrounded' and "surfaced" on the market and then passed from hand to hand  (when, where and how)? In any case, as Sherwell points out, the antiquities trade has not alwaysled to the preservation of material, citing the dismemberment of manuscripts to sell the pieces at a higher price than one complete element, or the fate of the famous papyrus codex of the Gospel of Judas.

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