Earlier today, the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) announced the discovery that more papyri “had been removed from the EES collection without authorisation.” This follows other related announcements over the last several months.
The first announcement by the EES (25 June 2019) noted the possibility that recently published early Christian papyri in the EES collection from Oxyrhynchus were identical to four papyri that were said to have been sold to Hobby Lobby and subsequently donated to the Museum of the Bible. Further investigations revealed that EES materials had indeed been stolen and sold to Hobby Lobby. The next announcement (14 October 2019) identified 13 such fragments. This was followed closely by another announcement (21 October 2019) that 5 additional EES fragments had been stolen and sold to American collector Andrew Stimer. Another announcement (16 November 2019) raised the number of EES items held by Stimer to 6 and noted that an inventory of the EES holdings from Oxyrhynchus “has to date identified around 120 pieces which appear to be missing, almost all from a limited number of folders; it is possible that a few more cases may emerge.”
Today the EES announced that in cooperation with the Museum of the Bible, they had identified an additional 21 fragments that had been stolen and then “acquired by Hobby Lobby and its agents from a number of third parties.” This time, the EES statement did not reveal the contents of these 21 pieces (it would be good to know if any of these pieces are among those that have been displayed over the years by Scott Carroll and others). The announcement goes on to note that the recent repatriation to Egypt of the bulk of the 5000 or so papyri held by Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible likely means that some additional EES materials will probably be included in that lot (thus the task of sorting, identifying, conserving, and providing long-term storage for these pieces will now fall to Egyptian colleagues). Finally, the EES notes that the police investigation into the theft of the papyri in their care is ongoing.
So, out of (at least) 120 missing papyri, 40 have now been identified and are reportedly being returned to the EES. Those that the EES has identified have been exclusively Christian (or possibly Jewish) literary texts. That leaves (at least) 80 or so missing pieces. I find it somewhat strange that the EES has not made publicly known what these pieces are. I am not a specialist in cultural heritage crimes, but it’s my understanding that when thefts occur, it is common practice to let the community know what pieces have gone missing in order that they might be identified when they surface on the market (at least, I take this to be the logic behind, for instance, the “Stolen Art” and “Missing Art” sections of the International Foundation for Art Research Journal).
In any event, hopefully more of the stolen items can be identified, and those responsible for the theft can be brought to justice.