Looting and Faking

This post is rather a departure from the Mycenological material typically presented here, and was born out of recent Twitter conversations that required responses of greater depth than 280 characters allow.  I am not, of course, a papyrologist, though being at Michigan I have been lucky to meet and learn from many; nor am I an expert in the antiquities market, though again I have been lucky to learn from those who are.  If I am therefore wrong in any of the points I present, I will be happy to learn it.  

Papyrology, as the study of written documents, exists at the juncture of two academic fields — the study of ancient languages, and the study of the material remains of the past: which is to say archaeology.  It has,  however, proven to ‘belong’ rather more to the former.  Some of this depends on the fact that the physical artefact itself is rarely as informative as the text written on it, which requires a great deal of expertise to decipher even in the best preserved cases.  Moreover, most papyri were excavated (if not looted) in the late 19th and early 20th century, when scientific archaeology was still very much embryonic, and many were excavated at any rate from secondary contexts (a midden, notably, at Oxyrhynchus); not the most promising material for archaeologists.

Because, in part, the excavation of the material in major western study collections had largely finished by the 1930s, experience in excavation has not been (if it ever was) a pre-requisite for the professional papyrologist, as it remains for the study of other excavated material.  In recent years, however, the publication of certain high-profile papyri (the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, P.Sapph.Obbink), have foregrounded relating to the texts as artefacts.  How these ancient documents, found (when authentic) invariably in Egypt, made their way to major western research institutions, raised eyebrows, and archaeological questions of provenance and provenience became primary avenues of investigation. These related directly to two other, higher profile, questions: looting and forgery.

The different coverage of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and P.Sapph.Obbink have been interesting.  The former, far more sensational, raised immediate controversy over its textual material, and on this basis its authenticity was challenged.  This led to scientific testing and further uncertainty.  In the case of P.Sapph.Obbink, however, presented no major problems in terms of its content; it was the fact that it had appeared, suddenly and without sufficient explanation, in Oxford, that created the controversy.

Provenance and Provenience

Much depends on an understanding of the significance of provenance and provenience.  The former properly indicates an object’s post-excavation history, especially as relates to owners or collections of which it was part.  The latter is simply where an object was found — this can be as vague as the report that it was looted from a specific site, or as precise as a specific context within an archaeologist’s trench.  Neither can nor should be taken for granted; both can be and are misrepresented by the unscrupulous.  

A secure provenience is the sole guarantor of authenticity — unless you can be sure an artefact was responsibly excavated (i.e. not planted) in the course of properly documented archaeological work, you cannot be sure it is what it purports to be.  For this reason, the art market has a complicated relationship with it.  On the one hand, anyone selling an antiquity is quite concerned to guarantee its authenticity and show that it came from the ground and not a forger’s workshop.  But they are generally more reticent about revealing when it came out of the ground: artefacts that left their source country after 1970 — the year a major UNESCO convention was passed — are no longer considered ethical for sale or purchase.  While this is essentially arbitrary, as different countries ratified it at different times, and it was at any rate illegal to remove antiquities from most source countries well before 1970, it serves as a useful line in the sand.  And so provenance becomes important.  On the art market today, a secure provenance is the only way to demonstrate that an antiquity left its source country before 1970 and so aligns with this accepted standard.

In all this the word ‘secure’ is doing a lot of work.  Especially when considering objects on the market, it cannot be assumed that the given provenance and provenience are true.  The fundamental problem is that, 50 years after the UNESCO Convention was passed, the number of artefacts that demonstrably meet its standards is not nearly enough to satiate collectors.  So: people lie.  Of course this came from Greece well before 1970; my Swiss uncle has been keeping it in his attic since the 40s.  For many, this lie (near enough to those often used) is enough.  The simple fact is that, if provenance were subject to even basic scrutiny, the market would not be able to function the way it does.  And, since those implicated in the market are interested in its continuing function, tighter controls will never be willingly applied.  As it is, those with more money than integrity are quite able to buy antiquities, illegal though they may be, and get away with it.  Arthur Houghton, a curator at the Getty in the 1980s, developed the Museum’s policy of ‘optical due diligence’, and this approach — asking for but accepting uncritically any given provenance — remains a standard modus operandi.

The importance of provenance, and the flimsy scrutiny it tends to receive, means that a great number of antiquities now on the market are bought and sold with only the most feeble accounts of their history.  In the case of looted antiquities, it is not in the buyer’s best interests to ask too many questions.  But it is important to remember that not all ‘licit’ antiquities have a secure provenance either: if nothing more than oral family history serves to remove the object from its source country before 1970, then the provenance is no more secure than those constructed for recently looted artefacts.  Fake artefacts must also (necessarily) be sold with falsified histories.  All three categories of artefact — looted, faked, and poorly documented — will have either unverified or fabricated provenances, and will appear for this reason functionally identical on the market.  Because they are shared across categories of artefacts, problems with provenance are not in and of themselves evidence of anything other than the need for further investigation.

Publication Ethics

It should, but unfortunately does not, go without saying that academics should not be interacting with artefacts offered for sale on the market.  If presented with one, a secure provenance placing it outside its source country before 1970 is the bare minimum they should acquire before discussing it in print.  Indeed, the Archaeological Institute of Archaeology has increased the language in its code of ethics from simply prohibiting members from ‘participat[ing] in the illegal trade in antiquities’ (1990) to ‘refrain[ing] from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects’ (1997).  The 2016 (and current) version makes the latter more explicit, and is worth quoting in full:

[Society members of the AIA should:] Refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that give sanction, directly or indirectly, to that trade, and to the valuation of such artifacts through authentication, acquisition, publication, or exhibition. Undocumented antiquities are those that are not documented as belonging to a public or private collection before December 30, 1970, when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In principle, therefore, no American archaeologist should ever be fooled into publishing a fake artefact as though it were authentic.  Only if they can satisfy themselves that its provenance, and therefore provenience, is secure, will they be able to publish it; a fake cannot by definition satisfy these criteria.  The investigation of the given account of an object’s history is, far from a formality, a professional obligation and sine qua non for publication.

Papryologists, at least in America, have followed suit: in 2007 the American Society of Papyrologists passed a resolution condemning the illict trade of papyri, including similar language prohibiting the purchase of post-1970 materials by members of the Society.  Publication of such material is not allowed under the Society’s auspices (so in its Bulletin or at its Annual Meeting), ‘unless the author, speaker, or curator includes a frank and thorough discussion of the provenance of every item’.  Though this weakens the language to some extent, it is still worth nothing that Obbink’s editio princeps of P. Sapph.Obbink (which does not include the word provenance once) would presumably not have been eligible for publication in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.  The German periodical in which it was published, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, offers no ethics statement on its website.  


A secure provenience is the sole guarantor of authenticity; a secure provenance is the guarantor of that provenience.  If, therefore, the provenance does not seem secure, then provenience and authenticity can come into question.  There is no better way to ensure an artefact’s authenticity than to trace a secure line from its current owner to the site where it was excavated.  Indeed, the market’s uncritical acceptance of flimsy provenance in the case of looted antiquities makes it uniquely susceptible to infiltration by fakes (as my friend Richard Bott demonstrated in his excellent Macquarie MRes thesis).

Both looted and fake artefacts are often sold with fake provenances, and only by investigating these can their true nature be determined.  Because the necessity of constructing a fake history for both types of artefacts is essentially the same, evidence that the provenance may be false does not, in and of itself, suggest that an artefact is fake, only that it could be.  At this point, internal evidence will often be adduced one way or another, the conclusions of which will often dictate the tenor of further investigation.

In the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, questions of authenticity emerged almost immediately, and Karen King’s publication of the editio princeps was in fact delayed to incorporate and be published alongside the results of scientific testing.  In that same issue of the Harvard Theological Review, however, the case was made  from internal evidence that the text of the papyrus could not be genuine.  The tension between philological approaches, which consistently suggested against authenticity, and scientific tests, which showed the ink was appropriate and the papyrus itself ancient, brought the situation to something of a stalemate.  That it is now considered a fake is the result of research into its provenance by Ariel Sabar in an Atlantic article well worth reading (a book will be published in August).  Faced with his results, even Karen King conceded it was unlikely to be real with the remarkable statement that ‘Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated.’

Now, it’s fair to say that not everyone has the time and resources to conduct the type of research that Sabar did (though I wonder whether his research was actually any more costly than the tests performed on the papyrus).  But it is also fair to say that only this investigation was able to quell any further debate.  And, of course, if false provenance could be offered for a fake artefact, the exact same could have been offered for a looted one.  All the scientific tests and grammatical infelicities in the world will fail to identify an artefact’s modern history.  And yet there was never any concern by those who believed in its authenticity, to my knowledge, that she may have published a looted artefact, though this was of course not an issue for those who thought it was fake.

In rather stark contrast, the authenticity of P.Sapph.Obbink was essentially never at question.  In his initial announcement of the poem in the TLS Obbink did offer a brief defence:

Sappho Authenticity

Within the context of the article, however, this is presented as almost an after-thought, and the argument is ultimately bloodless.  In a later discussion of the poem’s authenticity, Obbink allows Martin West’s initial impression to represent the communis opinio: ‘My initial impression was that it was very poor stuff, and linguistically problematic. But the more I look at it, the more OK it seems. It’s certainly not one of her best, but it has her DNA all over it’.  Controversy was rather immediately centred on its provenance — or rather the lack thereof.

The variants and permutations of the provenance given at different stages defy the possibility that the full story is known.  I can hardly improve on the account given by Bettany Hughes in a recent Guardian article, which ultimately shows that the cartonnage from which the poem was supposedly removed was still unsold after other fragments of Sappho ‘extracted’ along with P.Sapph.Obbink in the same hand had been waved around by Scott Carroll, then associated with the Green Collection.  Indeed, though that same article does note that some thought that it may be a fake (more on this later), the controversy of its provenance and potentially looted origin presupposed that it was authentic.

That provenance is, bluntly, a headache.  The most recent overview, and newest information, can be found in an(other) Atlantic article by Ariel Sabar, though earlier posts by Brent Nongbri and Roberta Mazza offered a more detailed look at various aspects.  As reported by Sabar, the owner of both P.Sapph.Obbink and the fragments purchased by the Green Collection was the Turkish antiquities dealer Yakup Eskioglu.  The article further demonstrates that no significant Green Collection papyri were actually extracted from mummy cartonnage, as was famously claimed, but rather purchased from Obbink or Eksioglu.  The destruction of mummy masks was, it seems, both literal and figurative papyrus laundering.  In light of this, it seems likeliest to me that the same happened with P.Sapph.Obbink, and the convoluted cartonnage narrative was simply a red herring to legitimise a recently looted papyrus.  Paul Barford offers a good overview.

As was mentioned, all of this rather presupposes something: that the papyrus is authentic.  But, of course, a shaky provenance could equally belong to a fake, and speculation on Twitter recently turned in that direction when Clara Bosak-Schroeder (@thaumatic) tweeted:

This sparked a fair bit of discussion, including ultimately this post.  I stand by my immediate response, though it does not in fact make a great argument:

And, of course, we have this from Armand D’Angour

… but a faker would say that, wouldn’t they?  Ultimately, any statement about how a forger thinks is likely to be tendentious.  Some forgers may go for the sensational; others, perhaps more wary of being caught, the hum-drum.  Arguments can be marshalled in either direction, limited only by the ingenuity of those posing them.  Psychologising our putative faker gets us nowhere.

(Not to cast aspersions on Armand, of course, who who surely would have written something much more interesting.)

In spending more time with the poem prior to this post, I have found with West that familiarity does improve it, though it ultimately lacks something of the vivid immediacy and subtle imagery of her more justly famous poems.  I do not doubt that it is real, though it is not my intention here to make a comprehensive case for the text’s authenticity.  At any rate, I have no particular investment in its authenticity; I have never published on it, and doubt I ever will.  It is, ultimately, much less exciting to argue for the authenticity of a text, especially when there are no major issues that need defending.  That is very much the case with this poem.  The most lethal objection, the linguistic problems noted by West, is not so bad as all that.  These are generally points of orthography where the text does not conform to the Lesbian Aeolic dialect.  These sorts of errors are only to be expected in a papyrus written in the third century AD, perhaps 800 years after the poem was written; few today would offer to copy out Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and guarantee there would be no errors, especially if the possibility presented that the exemplar may need correcting.  This is essentially what has happened, and these sorts of errors are incredibly common in Greek literary papyri.

The case is further bolstered by the fact that the Brothers Poem, and other Green Collection papyri in the same hand, join textually with previously known fragments.  This is not a smoking gun — our faker may have been deeply familiar with Sappho — but the effort would be quite extraordinary.  Given what amounts to, I think, fairly significant evidence for its authenticity, the case that it may be a fake needs to be made explicitly, and with something more than just dubious provenance.  As has been stressed, this is a shared feature of both fake and looted antiquities, and so problematic provenance is not evidence, in and of itself, that an artefact is fake.  As in the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, knowing the true provenance would solve the problem, but in the absence of that arguments have to be made from internal evidence, and, for all those who’ve expressed doubt, I’ve yet to see any case actually made.

(Throughout I have used ‘authentic’ to mean that it was collected in the first book of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho and circulated as one of her works in antiquity.  The question of whether is it from the hand of Sappho ipsa, or an ancient imitator, is a very different one, and not immediately relevant to the authenticity of P.Sapph.Obbink.  While there are some divisions within the Sapphic corpus based on metrical and dialectal differences [the so-called ‘abnormal’ poems], there is no reason to count this poem among them — and indeed no consensus that they couldn’t be by her anyway.  But we are coming here to the limits of my expertise, and these arguments are probably better made by others.)

On the other side, what we do know about its provenance points to the eminent possibility that it was looted.  A connection with Yakub Eksioglu is nearly guaranteed, given that he was the one who sold the related fragments to the Green Collection, and it’s fairly clear that had access to material looted from Egypt.  That P.Sapph.Obbink is an illicit, looted document is the most economical explanation — and the basis of the entire controversy.

Indeed, that’s why I find speculation as to its authenticity rather confusing.  As Enrico Prodi noted…

If P.Sapph.Obbink was faked, not looted, then the entire ethical problem is obviated.  The pivot is drastic, especially all that we know about other illegal dealings by all involved.  What does it benefit to reframe the conversation in terms of authenticity? At this point, with every reason to think that P.Sapph.Obbink is looted, and no positive evidence in favour of forgery, it simply confuses the issue.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t worry about fakes, but only when the evidence points us there.


So, then, what is the worse crime —  publishing a looted artefact, or a fake one?  This question, I think, has a clear answer, but the issue itself is not simple.  After all, the scholar who publishes a looted artefact can make the claim that they are performing a service to scholarship — if they didn’t publish it, the argument goes, it would disappear into a private collection, and the world would be (e.g.) one poem of Sappho poorer.  Publishing a fake as authentic, however, distorts the corpus, and so accomplishes rather the opposite effect.  It is almost inevitably malicious if done knowingly; at at best it is an act of scholarly irresponsibility.  Fakes have the ability to alter scholarly narratives, especially when opinion is divided, which (at best) suck oxygen away from more interesting debates, or (at worst) encourage the wrong questions and guide us to the wrong answers.

Without discounting the difficulties that fakes offer, their significance is generally limited to the pages of academic periodicals and monographs.  We can rank them of the utmost importance only if we consider academia a closed system, removed fromt the causes and consequences of the wider world.  But while a fake, if made by a scholar, may exist within this microcosm, when antiquities dealers intrude they bring the world with them.  The scholarship on looting and the black market in antiquities is now extensive, but the simple fact is that, beyond the inevitable damage to archaeological sites, it is a brutal form of transnational crime that leads to death, murder, and the exploitation of war-torn countries.

In this case it becomes, I think, absolutely clear that engaging with looted antiquities is worse than faked ones.  Looting in Egypt (where our papyrus must have been preserved) follows the same patterns as it does elsewhere, and was particularly bad in the disruption following the Arab Spring revolt of 2011.  Children employed by looters to dig through sites put their lives at risk, and occasionally lose them, and two guards hired to protect a site were shot and killed by looters in 2016 (see further this excellent article by Roberta Mazza).  It is not even the looters, often driven to the activity by desperation, who benefit; they are paid pennies compared with what those capable of getting objects out of the country and to the major auction houses in London and New York.  The sensationalised reporting of new artefacts, such as P.Sapph.Obbink, or knowledge that the Green Collection was willing to pay vast amounts for papyri, fuels and perpetuates this process.

As mentioned above, archaeologists are at this point well used to the idea that looted artefacts should not be published; the discipline has decided that whatever knowledge may be lost in this way is less important than avoiding contact with organised crime.  But in this the archaeologist who turns down an artefact for publication has an advantage over the papyrologist asked to do the same.  Archaeological finds offer, on their own, very limited information; we understand them through the context in which they were excavated — where were they found? what were they found with? One of the most spectacular recent finds in Classical Archaeology is the Combat Agate from Pylos.  Whatever its merits as a work of art, however, analysis would be far more limited if it had appeared without context.  We may place it on Crete, based on the quality, or else at Mycenae; Pylos would not be the first guess.  Understood as part of their proper context — the burial goods of the so-called Griffin Warrior — it is helping us re-assess our understanding of the early Mycenaean period in Greece.  In a different universe, where the tomb was looted and a scholar was offered the Combat Agate alone to publish, they would be rejecting only a(n exceptionally) pretty rock, not this entire scholarly opportunity.

The situation with papyri is obviously different.  Even those that have a recorded archaeological provenience are typically assessed based on what they say, not where they came from (the first papyrological publication based entirely on the building in which the papyri were found was published in 2018).  And so I think it is fair to say that the papyrologist who turns down a looted find is making a greater sacrifice than the archaeologist who does the same.  While, I think — as, albeit, an archaeologist, not a papyrologist — that rejection is the clear and necessary option, it is perhaps also fair to say that coming to that decision may not be easy.

Final Thoughts

But if the artefact is published, what then?  Archaeologists, in general, are happy to ignore looted artefacts, not least because they tend to lack the sort of contextual information that enable analysis.  But it is perhaps glib to suggest the same standard for papyrologists and textual scholars.  We could, I suppose, teach Sappho without the Brothers Poem, especially at the undergraduate level; but should we also ignore fr. 5 (relatively well-preserved, as things go) because one of the Green Collection papyri now records the first word?  Or fr. 16, the famous ‘what one loves’ poem, which has gained words in the same way?  It is not clear to me that this situation is tenable.  Because these looted texts were published, all who study Sappho are now implicated in the ethical question, and must make their peace with this.  I first read Sappho in depth this fall, and I devoured as much as I could — including the lovely Tithonus poem, published in 2005 — but deliberately avoided the Brothers Poem, a strategy which worked for about a month before it appeared on the midterm.  Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know — but I’m glad that I’m not likely to run into the same problem again soon.

While Obbink’s situation is clearly not resolved, and the ultimate fall-out (whatever it may be) will not be based on his publication of this poem, a comparison of his current circumstances with Karen King’s is in some ways instructive.  In many ways, she is lucky that doubt presented immediately, and the situation was resolved with (in academic terms) great speed.  The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife did not fully enter the corpus, but maintained a liminal position, and lasting damage seems to be minimal.  At any rate, she remains Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, and there has been no public consequence beyond, presumably, a fair deal of embarrassment.

In some ways she got lucky.  Had Sabar’s investigation found that the papyrus was not a fake, but had left Egypt much more recently, the narrative would be very different.  By accepting a piece presented by the stranger and the story he offered, this was the risk she took.  Provenance remains the only relevant question when dealing with an unknown artefact, and is far too important to accept at face value.

My thanks to Richard Bott for proofreading and years of valuable discussion on issues of fakes and forgeries.  All references to the excellence of his work are mine.

3 thoughts on “Looting and Faking

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