The Antiquities Trade in Michigan

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at the University of Michigan have contacted me to express their doubts that Professor Obbink ever had access to unpublished materials in the Michigan collection.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.

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

5 Responses to The Antiquities Trade in Michigan

  1. Anon says:

    The Pattengale story may not have the most trustworthy source, but it sounds authentic. In any case, it gains plausibility from the fact that the same Christie’s lot (supposedly of very miscellaneous items, some of which had belonged to Robinson, none of any but the most humdrum interest) was about to be used to support the provenance of the Galatians fragment and the Sappho discoveries. It does not seem plausible that there was no nexus between these two provenance operations.

  2. Anon says:

    If MixAntik had placed some of his inventory with, say, a person who was a professor at both Oxford and Michigan, it would not be surprising if some of the inventory were (at least some of the time) in Michigan. If, further, this hypothetical dual professor were to form a business relationship with someone in Dearborn, that would itself be within the bounds of the credible.

  3. Don’t forget another Michigan man: Scott Carroll and its Manuscript Research Group (Grand Haven).

  4. Thomas S. says:

    The link is unsurprising not just because Obbink had an appointment at U of Michigan but because the Detroit metropolitan area is the centre of Arab immigration to the US. Once I visited Israel/Palestine from Jordan and the bus in both directions was full of Arabs with US passports – talking to them, they all had ties to Michigan. In both Amman and Jerusalem, a lot of shopkeepers had lived/worked in Michigan or had family ties there. So, it is natural that, Obbink or not, dodgy antiquities coming to the US from the Holy Land or Egypt might transit through Michigan. That said, I still don’t understand how he incorporated a business with the address of the office he was just then vacating. Was there no mail related to state registration of the business that was due to come there?

    The Atlantic article was indeed surprisingly informative. The story is complex enough that there must be wider involvement. Of particular interest to me is how Obbink apparently got loans from Oxford (or was it Christ Church specifically?).

    • zugzwang2007 says:

      The loan was from Christ Church. Apparently they offer a facility for extending equity loans on property to the academic staff. By and large, this has probably been a good diversifying investment of college endowment funds, as houses in Oxford increased in value in the last two decades by about three times the inflation rate, and the college would probably have security over the salary payments supporting the loan. It remains mysterious why Obbink took out such a loan at that time, as he seems to have owned the same house since 2009 (the one with the L-shaped pool), and he could probably have refinanced it on the open market without giving up a share of the equity. Given the amounts allegedly paid over to Obbink by Hobby Lobby alone, it is also puzzling that he needed a loan, at that date, when the Greens had yet to ask for their money back. But perhaps money troubles are at the bottom of this?

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