Friday 16 January 2015

Sappho and the Peripatetic Papyri (4) "The Trusted Mister X"

[Fourth of five texts on the New Sappho fragment's reported collecting history]  In November 2011 somebody paid out seven thousand quid for 59 'packets' of ancient papyri which some anonymous individual had stashed away. Not all of the material was from a known source. In 2013 an agent (Scott Carroll maybe, or was it somebody else?) obtained some of the 2011 C1 AnonStash material for the Green Collection. But not all of it went to Mr Green.

One Collector

At some time before the end of January 2014   Professor Dirk Obbink was in contact with a "London collector" (regrettably, untransparently and unaccountably anonymous) who had some big bits of a papyrus manuscript of Sappho. At first nobody was saying where it came from... This is a bit odd if in fact it had been one of the unnoticed fragments in a recent totally legal and totally public Christie's sale barely two years earlier. There is no reason on earth that this information should not have been freely given, up front on announcing the new find. Especially in the context of a statement made at the time: "The authenticity of the ancient mummy cartonnage panel, from which the papyrus was extracted, having been recycled in antiquity to accompany a burial, has been established through its documented legal provenance." Except, of course, what had been sold by Christie's - giving it that legitimacy - was not an "ancient mummy cartonnage panel" accompanying a burial....

When pressed to say something more about the origins of the piece, an odd tale emerges (Obbink 'New Poems by Sappho', The Times Literary Supplement 5 February 2014 and Bettany Huges, 'Lover, Poet, Muse and a Ghost Made Real', The Sunday Times, 2 February 2014). "The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.”

One Dealer

 The Green material had been "purchased in 2013 by Steven Green from a trusted dealer". Now I am going to guess that it is not eBay dealer Mixantik/Ebuyerrrrr who is referred to here, even though he most mysteriously had the infamous Galatians fragment on sale at the end of the preceding year. I assume that this trusted dealer is somebody else.

Another Dealer "Mr Trustworthy X"

In fact, if we assume that the shadowy Turkish dealer who has such vague notions on export licenses is not the Trusted one that Mr Green was buying from we have another mystery figure to insert into the collecting history. Let's call him "The Trustworthy Mister X". I assume that Professor Obbink would not call the "Anonymous London Collector" a collector if he were a dealer, the dealer from which the Green Collection had not long ago bought the Sappho scrap as well as the Galatians (and possibly a Mark).

"The Trustworthy Mister X" would therefore be a dealer who'd bought the 2011 C1 AnonStash in November 2011 and spent 2012 and 2013 selling it off. Some bits go to "Anonymous London Collector", and some to Mr Green, and somehow some of them (apparently) get to the Turkish dealer. Very probably other bits are scattered around the antiquities market. Is it possible that "The Trustworthy Mister X" is in some way related to the "high-ranking German officer" of the story about "the elderly man" who "did not want to die taking his secret with him"? Would this "German officer" be in any way related to the [DDR] one evoked in the [probably invented] collecting history of the Pap.Dodge (Jesus' wife)?

But here is an even greater mystery in what Professor Obbink wrote. What on earth did "Anonymous London Collector" actually buy from "The Trustworthy Mister X" and deriving, reputedly from the Robinson collection via the 2011 C1 AnonStash? What we are told by Professor Obbink simply does not make any sense at all. He must have misheard something. This is what he writes:
As reported and documented by the London owner of the ‘Brothers’ and ‘Kypris Poems’ fragment [Anonymous London Collector], all of the fragments were recovered from a fragment of papyrus cartonnage [fn 4] formerly in the collection of David M. Robinson and subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. The Library later de - accessed it in order to purchase Faulkner materials. It was one of two pieces flat inside a sub - folder (folder ‘E3’) inside a main folder (labelled ‘Papyri Fragments; Gk.’), one of 59 packets of papyri fragments sold at auction at Christies in London in November 2011.
The problem is that he suggests that Professor Robinson could not tell the difference between a piece of papyrus ad a piece of cartonnage and mislabelled the packet 'E3'. Williss went through the 'third group' of papyri in the Robinson collection (`1961, 382) and counts the texts of different types, but fails to note among them a piece of cartonnage with texts of literary (or any other) nature. There is simply no mention of any such piece in the collection at all. Why is the presence of cartonnage in the lot not mentioned by Christie's?  Footnote 4 of Obbik's text reads:
"The collection contained other papyri derived from mummy cartonnage, and the fragments were simultaneously dissolved with a painted fragment of an earlier mummy cartonnage panel".
But which collection? The Robinson Collection? the 2011 C1 AnonStash? The Anonymous London Collector's collection? The latter seems to be how we should read "the fragments were simultaneously dissolved with a painted fragment of an earlier mummy cartonnage panel".  This can be read in connection with the next bit:
The layers of the cartonnage fragment, a thin flat compressed mass of papyrus fragments, were separated by the owner and his staff by dissolving in a warm - water solution. The owner originally believed that he had dissolved a piece of ‘mummy’ cartonnage, as I reported in TLS. But this turned out upon closer inspection of the original papyri not to be the case: none of the fragments showed any trace of gesso or paint prior to dissolving or after. This is also consistent with the date of the papyri 
Yes, cartonnage is generally thought to have been discontinued for use on mummies in the course of the third century, the date assigned to this worn-out and repaired document. So, all this elaborate narrative is to explain why Obbink originally stated that the previously unknown Sappho papyrus had emerged from a piece of mummy cartonnage (and in the original text, he did mention brown gunk on the surface of the object and one version of the story has him 'prising apart' the layers).

So, Prof Obbink is claiming that a "thin flat compressed mass of papyrus fragments" was confused by everyone for a document written on a single-thickness of papyrus. Possible? Yes, I suppose so. But was this piece put into an envelope labelled "Greek Papyri" (and not "pieces of cartonnage") by Professor Robinson? Or was it not put by him into that envelope, but somebody after the collection left Mississippi? Perhaps just before the 2011 sale, or maybe after it? How do we know a mysterious "Mister X" can be "trusted" when he sells Anonymous London Collector an envelope with Robinson's handwriting on it, that what he got was what Robinson had originally kept in that envelope 35 years or more earlier on in the chequered collecting history of this stash of loose fragments?

Was the cartonnage added to the 2011 C1 AnonStash by the presumed dealer/ middleman "The Trusted Mister X"? What relationship does that have to the appearance of the Galatians fragment on Ebay in October 2012 being sold by an Istambul dealer, which then is sold to Mr Green as having previously come from 2011 C1 AnonStash? I think Mr Green, for whom I am sure honesty, trust and trustworthiness are qualities to be valued, might like to have a word with "The Trusted Mister X". Who knows where he is?

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