Friday 16 January 2015

Sappho and the Peripatetic Papyri (3) 2011 AnonStash at Christie's

[Third of five posts on the collecting history of the 'New Sappho manuscript]  In the previous post (above) we discussed some papyri being bought in 1953-5 (?) by a US archaeology professor at the University of Mississippi who left them to his alma mater as part of a bequest on his death. The university was less than appreciative and flogged them off just 23 years later. Thus in 1981, instead of being in a public institution where they could be properly curated and studied, these items came back onto the market. Another archaeologist, a P. Deaton, probably the same that in the 1980s was selling papyri to a university, seems to have been selling to others too.

The Robinson papyri and the Deaton papyri (and others - see below) were then cast adrift on the seas of the international antiquities market. They passed through many hands, and we have no way of knowing what was done to them in the meantime, whether all the material was kept in the original envelopes and folders, whether some was taken out and sold off, whether other items were added to packets bearing (we assume) the handwriting and maybe other ownership marks of a known collector of a previous generation). In the course of these three decades, a large number of items now being back-sourced to the Robinson/Mississippi  collection crossed the Atlantic and ended up in the British Isles.

Now we scroll forward thirty years to November 2011. An accumulation of papyri fragments comes on the market.  Nothing is known about the seller. Let's call this the Anonymous Stash (Pap. AnonStash, and to make it clear - for there are many - which one, lets call it 2011 C[hristies Lot]1). Was the person who put the stash together a collector, or a dealer? Why was the collection sold? Where had the material, filling each of the 59 'packets', come from? According to the auction house that dealt with it, the 2011 C1 AnonStash contained material from at least two sources:
- A number of fragments belonged to the collection of David M. Robinson, a large part of which was subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi.
- Two of the packets were part of the collection of P. Deaton.
But "a number of" plus "two" does not make 59. There were in Lot 1, we should not forget that several dozen 'packets' of Greek and Coptic papyri from a source which is not stated. We do not know what had happened to the material in the packets which came from the two named collectors, whether subsequent owners had kept it in the same condition as when it left the library. Neither is it clear how the Robinson and Deaton lots were distinguished from the rest or whether the rest of the packets were labelled in any way. How is it known that the Sappho papyri reported later to have been in this lot were of 'Robinson' origin and not from one of the other unsourced packets or unsourced material added to those packets in the thirty years about which we know nothing? How can we evaluate how much we can trust the integrity of a person or persons who we not only cannot name, but who are entirely omitted from the 'official' collecting history?

Christies had looked through at least some of the material and state that "the handwriting of the papyri, often cursive, ranges from the 2nd to the 4th century AD". They add that "some texts indicate a probable localisation in the Heptanomis region of Ancient Egypt" and mention details of just two papyri which are related to the small town of Bakchias (near Herakleides) and Theadelphia, in Arsinoite nome. One of these is noted as "P.Rob.inv.22". Both of these places are well to the north of the presumed source of the Bodmer papyri and Nag Hammadi (though not so far from the other famous papyrus-bearing and looted site at Oxyrhynchus).

Tatty bits, 2011 C1 AnonStash
at Christies
It is pretty odd that the Christie's cataloguers, although they'd looked through for pieces that could be tell them something, did not notice the nice, quite large, and collectable Sappho piece which the collecting history says was among the (as we see above, inventorised) Robinson pieces.  Why was that? Did they not open all of the Robinson packets? In any case, they chose some pretty tatty disreputable looking bits as illustrative of what the lot has to offer for the catalogue.  Roberta Mazza has ascertained that Christie's did not take photos of the items they were selling (though it seems Dorothy King is in disagreement over that - so is there a photo of this Sappho manuscript among the items seen by Chrstie's?). It is beginning to look as if there is no full record of the state, contents and scope of the 2011 C1AnonStash when it entered Christie's, nor how it looked when the hammer fell. No mention is made of the pieces being accompanied by a copy of any Robinson inventory.

But, if what is being reported is true, it seems that there were hiding in those packets some real gems. Perhaps this is why bidding went higher than the estimate, perhaps prospective bidders, inspecting the lot before the auction spotted what Christie's had failed to?

1) The two big Sappho fragments. There were reportedly the two big bits with the Brothers and the Kypris poems in this lot (and they had come from the Robinson collection formerly in the University of Mississippi library for 23 years but not spotted for what they were). Prof. Obbink was told "It (sic) was one of two pieces flat inside a sub - folder (folder ‘E3’) inside a main folder (labelled ‘Papyri Fragments; Gk.’)". But who put it there? (See below)

 2) More Sappho:  According to Prof. Obbink (p. 3): "A group of twenty - some smaller fragments extracted from this piece , being not easily identified or re - joined , were deemed insignificant and so traded independently on the London market by the owner, and made their way from the same source into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City". These turned out to be from the same papyrus roll with the Sappho poem. Now there is a problem with what it was that was bought from Christies and who dissolved and sold what, but I'll deal with that in the next post (below).

3) Early Manuscript of Biblical Epistle: Information was obtained by Roberta Mazza from the Green Collection at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego last year about the collecting history of the Galatians 2 Coptic fragment (GC.MS.000462) which has been discussed in this blog before.We later learn that this new information came from David Trobisch, director of the Green collection who should know what he's talking about:
[This] was purchased in 2013 by Steven Green from a trusted dealer; the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection archives do have files attesting that the papyrus was part of the David Robinson papyrus lot sold at a Christie’s auction in London in November 2011.
There is however a problem with this:
The files do not explain what happened to the manuscript between November 2011 and October 2012, when it was on sale on eBay, and how it went from eBay to the dealer who sold it to Green. The only person who would be able to explain how a papyrus legally acquired at a Christie’s auction in London went on sale on an eBay account located in Turkey at this point would be the above mentioned trusted dealer, whose identity remains undisclosed. 
4) Early Manuscript of Gospel of Mark?:  Dorothy King has received information which suggests that among the material the dealer had acquired from Christie's might have been "bits of Mark"

If that is true, Christie's would have missed quite a lot of significant material in a bulk lot they handled on behalf of a client. Pretty remiss of them. But is it really the case that this material was in this lot when Christie's saw it? How to check this if the sellers did not keep records of what passed through their hands? Here, once again, we see the cognitive implications of the lack of transparency and accountibility of the antiquities market and private collectors.

Who was this client? Who put together the 2011 C1 AnonStash? Was he a collector, or dealer? What was the source of this material and was it added in the 1980s or just before the bulk lot was offloaded onto the market in November 2011? How can we evaluate how much we can trust the integrity of a person or persons who we not only cannot name, but whose contribution to the shaping, structure and state of the 2011 C1 AnonStash is skated over so blithely in the 'official' collecting history of the Sappho text?

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