Dirk Obbink Discusses Oxyrhynchus “Distribution” Papyri

Although Professor Dirk Obbink has issued an emphatic denial of accusations that he illegally stole and sold papyri from the Egypt Exploration Society, he has not (to the best of my knowledge) denied that he (legally) bought and sold so-called “distribution” papyri. These are published papyri from Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere that the Egypt Exploration Fund gave to subscribers mainly in the US and the UK between 1900 and 1924. Some of these pieces later ended up on the antiquities market to be traded by collectors and dealers, including (apparently) Prof. Obbink himself, if Museum of the Bible records are to be believed. I have discussed these “distribution papyri” in an earlier post.

Why do I bring this up? On the Oxford University website, there is a recording of a talk given by Prof. Obbink in 2015 on the now infamous Sappho fragments that he edited. During the talk, he spends a good deal of time discussing P.Oxy. 10.1231, a different copy of Sappho’s poems that was excavated from the trash heaps of Oxyrhynchus. This piece is now held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Dirk Obbink speaking at Oxford in May 2015; image source: University of Oxford Podcasts

It is kept at the Bodleian (rather than the Sackler, where the bulk of the Oxyrhynchus collection is held) because it was one of those early publications that was “distributed” to donor organizations. In his talk, Prof. Obbink acknowledges this fact and then makes some remarks that are quite stunning in light of the fact the he himself seems to have been buying and selling distribution Oxyrhynchus papyri as recently as 2010. At about the 5:35 mark in the video, he begins to moralize:

“In 1923 the papyrus was given to the Bodleian by the Egypt Exploration Society under an ill-conceived and short-lived scheme to distribute the Society’s imported antiquities throughout the western world in return for institutional and individual contributions to their excavation fund. ‘Ill-conceived’ I say not least because it left the donated pieces marooned in sites, some of them much further afield than the Bodleian is from the Sackler…Since the papyri were legally given, the scheme also led to privatization of numerous papyri, uh, through deaccession for fundraising, such as happened just last year at the University of California at Berkeley. But I don’t want to give the Bodleian any ideas about budgetary strategies!”

The whole statement (especially the joke about “budgetary strategies”) is breath-taking given the current accusations of theft against Prof. Obbink. But even if those accusations are false, the opinions expressed here sit pretty awkwardly with his involvement in the legal sales of distribution papyri to the Green Family in 2010. Here is the Museum of the Bible’s record for one of nine such items:

Museum of the Bible Provenance Data for P.Oxy. 1353; image source: Museum of the Bible

Perhaps Prof. Obbink changed his mind drastically about the “privatization” of artifacts in the time between 2009 and 2015, but his involvement in at least two antiquities trading businesses in the intervening years tends to suggest otherwise.

I should add that the last part of Prof. Obbink’s statement is, I believe, factually inaccurate. As far as I know, the U.C. Berkeley never had any distribution papyri from Oxyrhynchus. The Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, however, did have some distribution pieces and did sell them off at about that time (2014-2015). So that is probably what Prof. Obbink has in view with that comment.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

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