Buyer’s Market

11.23.14 10:45 AM ET

Dismembering History: The Shady Online Trade in Ancient Texts

Both priceless papyri that could shed light on early Christianity and forgeries are openly trafficked online. Determining authenticity is increasingly difficult.

This past week a new eBay auction announced the sale of “Ancient Egyptian papyrus with Greek letters—Bible.” Listed with the “buy it now” price of $1,098, the seller claimed that the fragment was written ca. 200 BC and was “collected in the 1960s … from an old Swiss collection, probably the Erik von Scherling collection.”

Right off the bat, papyrologist Brice C. Jones noted that something was awry. The fragment is written in Coptic, not Greek, and is not actually from the Bible, as the title would indicate. The shift in language and content is click-bait for the enterprising eBay-er. While it might seem that sales like this would best be handled through Christie’s or Sotheby’s, eBay has become a regular marketplace for antiquities. Previously unknown papyri crop up only to vanish into private collections and out of the sight of scholars forever. Artifacts that—if authentic—could offer priceless glimpses into the past are marketed with the same savvy as a knock-off Burberry scarf: extortionate shipping fees and tantalizingly low opening bids of $0.99.

For the past decade, scholars have been trawling the Internet looking for important papyri. Hany Takla, of the St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society, has been collecting and digitizing eBay papyri on behalf of the Society since 2003. Most of his acquisitions have been individual pages of important manuscripts that were sold separately online.

Takla’s dealings with eBay, recorded in the recent publication Synaxis Katholike, revealed a diverse array of sellers. Alongside Turkish antiquities dealers there are those looking to sell family heirlooms. One eBay seller turned out to be a pair of sisters with an online beauty supply business who started selling dismembered pages from a Book of Revelation to fund one of the sister’s dowry. Rather than sell the complete manuscript, they cut out pages and placed them on eBay on an ad hoc basis.

Other sellers appeared more mercenary. A couple from Utah—trading as Pattyspreciouspicks—successfully purchased some complete manuscripts in 2007. They then started selling them off piece by piece, often claiming to Takla that they were selling pages from different manuscripts. It’s a long-established moneymaking technique among antiquities dealers.

It is difficult to overstate how destructive the practice of dismembering ancient and medieval books is. Manuscripts that are copied by hand are unique complete works. The bindings alone are repositories of information for scholars who want to understand the socio-economics of bookmaking in the ancient world. Stripping off the bindings and selling them piece-by-piece to buyers around the globe may be more profitable, but it is textual vandalism. This happens in the art world as well, where it can be more profitable to parcel off pieces of ancient vases. But when it comes to the value of antiquities for human history, the sum of the parts is not greater than the whole.

Some eBayers are wise to scholarly commitments to complete texts and use them to extort more money for complete manuscripts. In pitching a complete Coptic Lectionary (a liturgical calendar) to him for $20,000, Pattyspreciouspicks told Takla, “If I can’t sell it to you as a whole, then I will unfortunately be forced to sell off each old page one at a time on my eBay site. I really don’t want to cut up this old Coptic religious document…” As Takla notes, “Needless to say he knew that he would not be able to get that asking price whether he sold it intact or by the sheet."

At least in the case of this latest von Scherling papyrus we have some idea where the text is from. Dr. Alin Suciu told me that he was contacted by the seller—an antiquities dealer in Berlin—and asked to supply information about the fragment and its value. He often receives inquiries from sellers eager to verify that their items are authentic. It was Suciu who made the initial connection to von Scherling, a prominent Swiss antiquities dealer whose private catalog system, Rotulus, is circulated among private dealers and institutions. It’s still a point of reference today. Approximately 30 Christian pieces are unaccounted for from this historic collection, and Prof. Klaus Worp has confirmed its authenticity of this fragment.

In the case of many auctions, however, the papyri are completely unprovenanced. In other words, they weren’t found on an archeological dig nor do they have accompanying documents specifying their origins. We don’t know either where they come from or how they got here. None of the eBay auctions are properly documented. Today, a lack of provenance often means one of two things: an artifact is forged or an artifact was illegally acquired.

The most famous undocumented discovery of recent years is the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. This papyrus scrap made international headlines when its discovery was announced, but has subsequently been revealed to be a forgery. One of the interesting things about GJW was that its origins are almost entirely unknown. The owner of the papyrus has insisted on anonymity and, as it turns out, the documents supporting the papyrus were likely forged too. If we wondered where a forger would get the materials to forge a text like this, we need look no further than eBay.

When documentation is unavailable, it is likely that the materials were obtained illegally, often as the result of looting in the wake of military and political unrest. As a result, in 2007 the American Society of Papyrologists adopted a resolution that forbids members from participating in the trade of antiquities from Egypt after April 24, 1972. The Archeological Institute of America also specifies that only objects that were legally excavated or were documented as part of collections before December 30, 1970, can be presented in meetings.

Standards are a little sloppier when it comes to Christian materials. As St. Louis University historian Douglas Boin told me, the Society of Biblical Literature, where most Christian objects will be presented, has no such policy in place. In the meantime, shifty manuscripts continue to wend their way into major collections. In 2012, scholarly bloggers Dorothy L. King and Brice Jones highlighted the suspicious trading practices of an eBay seller known as MixAntix. Two years later, Roberta Mazza, an ancient historian and papyrologist at the University of Manchester, recognized a papyrus that had been put up for sale by MixAntix when she saw it on display at the Vatican’s illustrious Verbum Dominini II exhibit last April. A papyrus of dubious and potentially illegal origin ended up in an exhibit on the Word of God at the center of the Roman Catholic Church.

Something is clearly amiss in the global antiquities market. eBay is the dark underbelly of the papyrus trade: precious documents are being carved up, potentially stolen goods trafficked, and the materials for forgers readily supplied. If capitalism has taught us anything, it’s that demand creates supply. Until scholars and collectors stop buying, antiquities dealers have no incentive to stop selling.