There really is quite a bit to digest in Ariel Sabar’s long piece on Professor Dirk Obbink in The Atlantic. Here are a couple additional interesting selections:
“Though it wasn’t publicly known, Obbink served as more than just an academic consultant to the Greens: Josephine Dru, a former papyrus curator for the Museum of the Bible, told me he was one of their biggest suppliers of papyri. From January 2010 to February 2013, Obbink sold the family more than 150 papyrus fragments—for a total of between $4 million and $8 million, according to a source who has seen the figures and described them to me as a range.”
It is known that Professor Obbink (legally) sold 9 Oxyrhynchus “Distribution Papyri” to Hobby Lobby in 2010. Professor Obbink is also alleged to be the source of 11 of the 13 stolen Oxyrhynchus items in the Green Collection (the other two stolen pieces are said to have been bought from Khader M. Baidun & Sons/Art-Levant Antiquities of Israel; how Baidun got them remains a mystery). That leaves (at least) some 130 pieces unaccounted for. Which pieces are these? Do they include the Green Collection “mysteries” papyrus? The so-called “unknown Aristotle“? If Prof. Obbink was in fact the source of these other 130+ items, where might these pieces have come from? This is another reason that the Green Collection / Hobby Lobby / Museum of the Bible needs to release the acquisition records for the items they are returning to Egypt so that the wider community of scholars can try to learn more about the networks of dealers behind them.
This leads to another interesting revelation in Sabar’s article:
“On April 10, 2012, three weeks before he parted ways with the University of Michigan, Obbink visited the county clerk in Ann Arbor. He filed paperwork for a new business, listing its principal address as Room 2151 at 435 South State Street—his soon-to-be-former office in the Michigan classics department. The company’s name, he wrote, was Oxford Ancient.”
Oxford Ancient, of course, is the business name on the invoice for the four Oxyrhynchus gospel papyri that Professor Obbink allegedly sold to Hobby Lobby. But the date of 2012 here seems noteworthy. I have to admit that I hadn’t thought that much about the fact that Professor Obbink’s time at the University of Michigan overlapped with his association with Green Collection (Michigan’s website lists Professor Obbink’s period of employment as only including the years 2003-2007). Or that his appointment at Michigan was specifically as Professor of Papyrology, which means that he very likely would have had special access to the extensive collection of unpublished papyri at Michigan.
Now, in my experience, the collection at Michigan is one of the most professional, collegial, and best run in the world. You really don’t get any sense of the type of exclusivity and secrecy that created the conditions for the undetected theft of unpublished Oxyrhynchus papyri from the Egypt Exploration Society’s holdings. But the years 2010-2011 would likely not have been quite normal in the papyrology rooms at Hatcher Library. It must have been a particularly difficult period, when the long-time archivist of the collection, Traianos Gagos unexpectedly and tragically died in 2010, leaving the collection without a permanent curator/archivist for a stretch of time.
That Professor Obbink was selling (legally acquired) papyri to the Greens already 2010 means that he was involved in the antiquities trade even before he established his business, Oxford Ancient, in 2012. I wonder if colleagues at Michigan were aware of Professor Obbink’s activities on the antiquities market?