The Museum of the Bible in Washington recently announced it has returned 5,000 fragments of ancient papyrus to Egypt. Among them are fragments of poetry by the ancient Greek poet Sappho the museum had acquired in 2012.
The announcement follows years of questions about the origins of the fragments, and the origins of a fragment from the same papyrus roll that came to public attention in 2014. Scholars and literary critics were abuzz after The Daily Beast reported on Jan. 28, 2014, that papyrologist Dirk Obbink of the University of Oxford had identified two new poems by Sappho.
Little of Sappho’s poetry survives, and what does is fragmentary. Obbink’s discovery was remarkable because it preserved the final five stanzas of one poem and portions of a second, making it one of the longest continuous sequences of Sapphic verse.
News of the discovery made international headlines, but serious questions about the papyrus’s origins, acquisition and ownership history — its provenance — did not. Provenance is important for establishing the authenticity and legal status of antiquities.
In the fall, I published new research into a digital sales brochure produced by the auction house Christie’s. My research calls into question the published accounts of the papyrus’s provenance. I believe the accounts of the Sappho papyrus’s origins that Obbink published were fabricated, and that its owner had access to Obbink’s unpublished research and sought to capitalize upon it.
Legal, ethical concerns
Papyri originate almost without exception in Egypt. In 1983, the Egyptian government passed legislation prohibiting the domestic trade in antiquities, establishing definitively that the country’s archeological heritage is state property.
To combat looting and the illegal antiquities trade, more than one scholarly association’s ethical guidelines cite the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property in condemning the study of newly surfaced antiquities. According to those guidelines, scholars shouldn’t authenticate or publish objects that left their country of origin illegally or prior to the 1970 convention.
How and when the Sappho papyrus left Egypt are pressing legal and ethical questions.
The Daily Beast linked to an unpublished, draft article Obbink briefly made available on a blog.
Regarding the papyrus’s origins, it said only that it was newly uncovered and in the private collection of an anonymous owner.
Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes soon reported in London’s Sunday Times that Obbink discovered the papyrus after prising it from mummy cartonnage — the casing of an Egyptian burial similar to papier-mâché.
Obbink corroborated its origin in mummy cartonnage in a Times Literary Supplement article. Hughes stated that the papyrus’s “provenance was obscure” and that it “was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer.” Obbink said only that its provenance was both documented and legal.
Scholars questioned the mummy cartonnage narrative because the practice of recycling papyri in the manufacture of cartonnage ceased long before the papyrus was copied.
When Obbink’s scholarly paper was finally published on April 10, 2014, it didn’t discuss provenance.
A year later, Obbink revised the papyrus’s origin story at a scholarly conference on Jan. 9, 2015. He said it was recovered from an unpainted fragment of papyrus cartonnage that was purchased at a 2011 Christie’s auction. He did not specify when the recovery took place.
The Christie’s brochure
After Obbink’s presentation, Christie’s produced a 26-page brochure advertising the new Sappho papyrus for private sale. It circulated exclusively among Christie’s clientele, and was unknown to scholars. I received a digital copy from Ute Wartenberg Kagan, a scholar of ancient Greek coinage, which she obtained from a client of Christie’s. The brochure contained photographs captioned as “the recovery of the Sappho papyrus.” When I inquired about the brochure, Christie’s responded: “We cannot discuss private sales activities unless authorized to do so.”
I hoped to learn when the files had been created and modified, and to scrutinize what the images depicted more closely. I ran a computer program that examined the brochure and its JPG files, and was able to extract the metadata associated with them.
I concluded that the photos presented in the Christie’s brochure were staged and don’t depict the extraction of the Sappho papyrus. In my view, the photos document the story about mummy cartonnage that Hughes and Obbink wrote about.
One photo includes a panel of cartonnage I have identified as previously belonging to a high-ranking German officer, as was mentioned in Hughes’s report. The story was never plausible — scholars questioned it and Obbink subsequently revised it. But the brochure, I believe, bears witness to the original narrative.
I also concluded that the anonymous owner of the papyrus had access to Obbink’s unpublished research, and undertook to propose the papyrus for private sale almost immediately after Obbink presented the revised story at the scholarly conference Jan. 9, 2015.
The brochure’s “Provenance” section cited not Obbink’s January presentation but a scholarly article that wasn’t published until June 15, nearly four months after the creation of the brochure.
In response to an article in The Guardian that reported on my research, Christie’s said it: “… would never knowingly offer any works of art without good title or incorrectly catalogued or authenticated. We take our name and reputation very seriously and would take all necessary steps available to address any situation of inappropriate use.”
Scholarly ethics and antiquities
Scholars are wary of the antiquities market because academic appraisals add to objects’ commercial value, which can incentivize looting and the illegal trade in antiquities. Scholarship also offers legitimacy.
For this reason, scholars must scrutinize new discoveries carefully before conducting or publishing research, and present their findings transparently. When the media reports on preliminary research, it is important to convey its preliminary nature.
Last April, an Oxford student newspaper reported that Obbink had been arrested Mar. 2, 2020, for “for alleged theft of ancient papyrus from the Sackler Classics Library in Oxford.” Obbink has denied those allegations.
Questions remain about the 2014 Sappho papyrus. The Museum of the Bible’s recent announcement acknowledges the “insufficient reliable provenance information” of its papyri — including its Sappho fragments. The chapter about the museum’s Sappho papyri has concluded, but the status of the Sappho papyrus Obbink discovered is uncertain. The papyrus’s present owner is anonymous and its location is unknown.