Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Export Ban on "Mirror of Recluses"

Mirror of the art market?
An Oxford academic stands to gain from the sale of an artefact important for the nation, reports Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian (21 Jan 2020). Dr Dirk Obbink, associate professor in papyrology and Greek at Christ Church, runs two businesses marketing artefacts, controversially for a figure in academia, where involvement in the market may be regarded as a conflict of interest. antiquarian books and documents, Castle Folio and Oxford Ancient operate 'in an office above a branch of TK Maxx in Oxford'. They are now controversially mixed up in the sales of ancient Greek documents to Hobby Lobby, who also bought manuscripts dating from between 1100 and 1600 from Obbink. Obbink's firm is the owner of another object, a unique book dating from around 1414. The only other known copy belongs to the British Library, and is incomplete. Obbink had bought it at an auction at Christie’s in London four years earlier, on 16 July 2014. At that time, the hammer price was £182,500. When he sold it in 2019 it fetched just £135,000.
The arts minister, Helen Whateley, has announced a temporary export bar on the precious Myrowr of Recluses, or “Mirror of Recluses”, a Middle-English volume of advice addressed to female anchorites and religious hermits. Last summer, Obbink put it up for sale at Bloomsbury Auctions in London where, on 2 July, it was sold to an overseas buyer. The temporary export bar has now been placed on the item because of its outstanding importance for British history and culture. It is a measure that gives UK buyers the chance to fundraise to purchase the item. A UK buyer would have to raise £168,750 by 13 April to save it for the nation.
thus leading to the unusual scenario of a civic institution raising funds from the public to acquire an item from Dr Obbink.
One senior academic has said: “Given that there is a police investigation [into Dr Obbink] it seems reasonable to question whether any of the activities Obbink has been involved with should be allowed to proceed. The process should be suspended.” [...] A DCMS spokesman said: [...] We are not aware of any evidence of wrongdoing in relationship to the manuscript.”
The timing of all this is interesting, and I would be very interested to know whether Hobby Lobby was at all interested in acquiring this document. It was sold by Bloomsbury Auctions on 2nd July 2019 for less than the seller had paid for it (a figure that could have been known to bidders, though the estimate was: £70,000 - £90,000). Mr Holmes was circulating details of Hobby Lobby's (note NOT the MoB's) dealings with Obbink in April 2019 and then on 4th June released copies of the invoices. Quite possibly (even though Obbink's ownership of the manuscript was in theory a trade secret), possibly the questions this raised may have depressed bidding on the "Mirror of Recluses". Was that intended? Obbink claims that the documents supplied by the MoB "have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career”.

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