Some Additional Thoughts on Sabar’s Atlantic Article

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.

Office sign for Dirk Obbink’s antiquities company; image source: Grace Watkins, by way of Candida Moss’s Twitter feed

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?

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Aristotle, Green Collection Mysteries Papyrus, Michigan Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Some Additional Thoughts on Sabar’s Atlantic Article

  1. D. Bradnick says:

    To add to your request, I think it would also be helpful if other collectors, including Stimer, released their acquisition records.

    Sabar wrote, “An inventory of Stimer’s collection, provided to me by a source, states that two other papyri—from Exodus and Psalms—had been “deaccessioned,” or sold off, by seminaries in Berkeley, California, and Dayton, Ohio.”

    What else is in Stimer’s personal collection? What is in the Hope Partners International collection? For example, is the Aesope’s Fable papyrus, which was on display in Belarus and claimed to have come from mummy cartonnage, in Stimer’s possession? If so, who sold him this manuscript?

    “The EES soon discovered another half-dozen of its papyri in the collection of a wealthy California collector named Andrew Stimer, who had previously sold the Greens four Dead Sea Scrolls that the Museum of the Bible later deemed forgeries. (Stimer disputes the museum’s forgery findings.)”

    From whom did Stimer purchase these DSS forgeries? His acquisition records would also be insightful.

  2. David Meadows ~ rogueclassicist says:

    My related nagging question is how they (Hobby Lobby) know they should be returned to Egypt; some might very well come from other collections which are missing items (e.g. the Sorbonne) …

  3. G.Schwendner says:

    Whether Dirk might have taken anything from Michigan would depend on whether he had been given a key to the vault. Verhoogt would know. I don’t think Traianos and Dirk got along very well.

  4. Timothy Mitchell says:

    Great observations, thank you for this. It makes me think, perhaps Obbink stole papyri from Michigan? Wow. This is such a twisted tale.

  5. As Bees In Honey Drown – Some Additional Additional Thoughts:

    “Obbink had once kept hundreds of Oxford’s uncataloged mummy masks in his rooms, as a favor to the university, which was short on storage.

    It was one of some 20 masks Obbink sold the Greens.

    Though housed at oxford, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri are owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, the London charity that financed their excavation.

    Confronted by the EES, Obbink admitted to having a fragment of Mark from Oxyrhynchus in his office and showing it to Carroll. But he insisted that he’d never said it was for sale. The EES instructed him “to prepare it for publication as soon as practicable in order to avoid further speculation about its date and content.”

    In june 2019, Michael Holmes, who replaced Pattengale as the director of the scholars initiative, flew to London to meet with leaders of the Egypt Exploration Society, who remained skeptical that Obbink, whatever his other shortcomings, might have sold Oxyrhynchus papyri.

    Unfortunate that the fragment was not from 10:19. Buyer beware but Seller beskeptic.

  6. Let’s take a look at a [understatement]better[/understatement] presentation of information regarding “Heritage Assets” in a related British non-profit’s Annual Audited Financial Statements:

    Click to access Christ_Church.pdf

    Christ Church

    Page 17

    “9. Heritage Assets

    The House has chosen to hold heritage assets at cost. The House has a number of assets, including items of art and historic texts that meet the definition of heritage assets under the SORP. The depreciated historic cost of the majority of these items is nil. Items purchased are recognised at cost and items donated to the House are recognised at fair value. The House has taken advantage of the exemption within FRS I02 not to disclose transactions before I January 2015 as obtaining fair values for these assets would be impracticable and the cost of obtaining such valuations would outweigh the benefits to the users of these financial statements.”

    and Page 28

    “10. Heritage Assets

    The House holds a collection of early printed books, manuscripts and photographs, circa 650 paintings, circa 3,000 prints and circa 2,000 drawings, a collection of 18th and 19th century English glass and a number of Russian icons of the 17th and 18th century. All of these were donated to the House between 1710 and 1980 on the understanding that it will preserve them and make them accessible to scholars and, within appropriate limits, to members of the public. Heritage assets are held at historical cost which in the opinion of the Trustees is now immaterial. The Trustees consider the cost to carry out a valuation of these heritage assets held would not be commensurate with the benefit to the users of the financial statements.

    Christ Church is one of the major research libraries in the world, home to many thousands of priceless documents and collections. They encompass a vast array of rare and unique materials in a number of formats, ranging from illuminated manuscripts and early printed books to family papers, maps, artefacts and images.
    These collections support research by members of Christ Church and Oxford Universiry, as well as an international community of scholars.

    Christ Church is unique among the Oxford and Cambridge colleges in possessing an important collection of Old Master paintings and drawings, housed in a purpose-built gallery of considerable architectural interest. The Picture Gallery is open to members of the public, Christ Church and Oxford University and the Old Master collection has been on view to the public since 1768. No material acquisitions or disposals have occurred over the last 5 years.”

  7. Pingback: The Antiquities Trade in Michigan | Variant Readings

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