In an earlier post working through some of the details in Ariel Sabar’s piece in The Atlantic, I noted that it was news to me that Professor Dirk Obbink had incorporated his antiquities trading company (“Oxford Ancient”) in Michigan in 2012. The company name had been known since Mike Holmes released a series of documents said to be part of an invoice for the sale of four Oxyrhynchus gospel papyri by Prof. Obbink to Hobby Lobby:
According to these documents, the company was based in the UK in Oxford, with no mention of Michigan. Since I made that post about the Michigan connection, some colleagues connected with the papyrus collection at the University of Michigan have contacted me to express their doubts that Professor Obbink ever had access to unpublished materials in the Michigan collection.
In trying to learn more about all of this, I stumbled across a couple oddities–things that didn’t make much sense in the past but now suddenly look quite different.
Back in 2012, the archaeologist Dorothy King had been reporting on large numbers of papyri being sold on eBay from the Turkish seller known as MixAntik, a.k.a. Yakup Eksioglu, who, according to Sabar’s article claims to have been the seller of the Sappho papyri published by Professor Obbink. On New Year’s Day 2013, King reported that MixAntik was selling items that he claimed were coming from Oxyrhynchus. Now, according to Sabar’s report, Professor Obbink seems to have had a good working relationship with MixAntik. Sabar relates a story from Jerry Pattengale (so again, a story from a not-entirely-reliable source) of a visit to MixAntik’s apartment in London arranged by Professor Obbink, who is said to have encouraged the Hobby Lobby team to buy expensive papyrus manuscripts from MixAntik. The alleged connection between this eBay seller and Prof. Obbink does not look great.
But there is more. King reported in that same New Year’s Day post that MixAntik was claiming that some of his papyri were “located” in Michigan. At the time, this claim seemed baffling. King noted that this may have simply been a fabrication, a way of trying to avoid Turkish law enforcement. That could certainly be true. But of all the possible places in the world for a Turkish dealer to choose as a base of operations…Michigan? Seems a little odd.
But it brings to mind the stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri owned by California collector Andrew Stimer. Recall Mr. Stimer’s story of their acquisition:
“I acquired both of the manuscripts in the summer of 2015 from Mr. M. Elder of Dearborn, Michigan. He bought them the previous year, in April 2014, via a private treaty sale executed by Christie’s London.”
“Mr. M. Elder,” as Candida Moss established, was the business partner in one of Professor Obbink’s other antiquities trading businesses, Castle Folio. And Where is Castle Folio based? Oxford. At the same address as Prof. Obbink’s other business, “Oxford Ancient”:
So, for whatever reason, there does seem to be some kind of link with the antiquities trade in Oxford/London and the greater Detroit metro area. Strange stuff.