Fleecing a Discipline

Mike Sampson’s new article on the provenance of P.Sapph.Obbink (‘the newest Sappho’, containing the Brothers Poem) is a magnificent bit of detective work, which, like all developments in this case, leads in some ways to more questions than answers. This is an attempt to explore some of those questions, and tease out the implications of the new answers. Ultimately, I think there is now enough evidence to suggest that Dirk Obbink himself was the papyrus’ owner, and its public announcement a marketing ploy to raise its prestige and asking price.

After Sampson, along with Anna Uhlig, published a piece on Eidolon about P.Sapph.Obbink and its provenance issues, he was contacted by Ute Wartenberg Kagan, a papyrologist and former Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, who shared with him a Christie’s brochure advertising P.Sapph.Obbink for private sale. This had (remarkably) not been seen by any scholar (as far as Sampson could ascertain) working on the history of the papyrus. His article analyses the metadata of this PDF, which record when it was created, how often it was edited, and even when the photos embedded in it were taken. While some of his basic conclusions were already reported in January by Charlotte Higgins, the data he extracted are incredibly rich and allow for multiple angles of analysis.

His central finding is that the reported provenance of P.Sapph.Obbink is a demonstrable fiction. A photograph in the brochure showing the cartonnage from which P.Sapph.Obbink and the closely related Green Collection (GC) Sappho fragments were supposed to have been extracted was taken on 14 February, 2012, a full week after Scott Carroll had publicly displayed the GC fragments (7 February, 2012), and nearly a month after they had been ‘discovered’ by Scott Carroll at Baylor (16 January, 2012, an event recounted at length in an Atlantic article by Ariel Sabar; this ‘discovery’ was announced by Scott Carroll on his Facebook page two days later, 18 January, 2012).

The inevitable result of this timeline is that everything Dirk Obbink has said in public about the provenance of the papyrus is a lie. There is simply no value in analysing any of his statements or publications for hints of truth. While Sampson’s article clarifies some questions arising from the changing and contradictory accounts (we finally know why Bettany Hughes referred to a ‘high-ranking German officer’ in the first public announcement of the papyrus), this approach can only reveal the nature of Obbink’s lies, not what really happened. There was probably enough evidence to take this stance before, but I don’t see how it can be disputed now.

While Higgins’ article also alluded to an earlier (attempted?) sale in 2013, Sampson’s article gives much more insight into this imperfectly understood event. Though the brochure was ‘created’ on 26 February, 2015, this reflects the date of the final, not the earliest, change. The earliest date in the PDF’s history is rather 18 July, 2013, and there are then 49 other changes recorded before 27 August, 2013 (after this, no changes are recorded until 2015). It is from this cluster of dates that Sampson extrapolates the existence of an earlier brochure, and therefore at least an attempted sale in the summer of 2013. These data are preserved because (as Sampson argues) the new brochure is not a completely new document, but simply an edited version of the old. It does not seem that the metadata are sufficient to identify which, if any, parts of the brochure remain unchanged from 2013, but as Sampson was able to find a collector with a physical copy of the 2015 brochure, it is at least possible that physical copies of the 2013 brochure also still exist. It may also, of course, still exist as a PDF on the hard-drive of one collector or another. We may hope that this document one day surfaces.

One thing about the 2013 brochure is known, however. Within the metadata, Sampson found a sequence including ‘Books_2013: Rom_Sappho/Adelphos, private sale August 13’. As he interprets it (surely rightly), this indicates that the papyrus was advertised (or sold) as a ‘book’ on August 13, 2013, and identified as a Roman-era text of Sappho, containing a poem about her brother (‘Adelphos’ = ἀδελφός, brother). The poem had already been read in August 2013, 18 months before it was announced to the public. Who did the reading? Here we feel acutely our ignorance of the 2013 brochure, but even without that corroboration there is no reason to doubt that it was Dirk Obbink.

P.Sapph.Obbink has always been closely associated with the GC Sappho fragments, which were written in the same hand and come from the same book of Sappho’s poems, which is to say they are all fragments of the same ancient papyrus roll. It is hard to imagine, therefore, that they were looted from Egypt separately. Rather, they were presumably together until the point that the fragments were sold to the Greens and the longer papyrus to its eventual owner.

Thanks to the Museum of the Bible’s belated (but, apparently, genuine) efforts at transparency, we know something about where the GC Sappho fragments came from: they were purchased on 7 January, 2012, along with hundreds of other papyrus fragments, from Yakup Eksioglu. Earlier accounts that they were recovered by dissolving mummy masks were simply an attempt to launder papyri bought from a dealer who apparently had no compunctions dealing with freshly looted material. In Sabar’s Atlantic article, Eksioglu also claimed to be the source of P.Sapph.Obbink, which seems inevitable even if we aren’t inclined to take a liar and a brute at his word (details of his terrible threats against Roberta Mazza can also be found in Sabar’s article).

We also know that Obbink was working with Eksioglu at this point, apparently as a go-between for him and the Green Collection. Sabar’s article refers to an event ‘in early 2012’ when Obbink took Jerry Pattengale, then-executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative, to Eksioglu’s flat in London and tried to talk him into buying a Coptic fragment of 1 Corinthians for $1,000,000 (Pattengale didn’t bite). It’s possible Obbink was also involved in the sale of the consignment including the Sappho fragments: the day before the purchase agreement was signed, Scott Carroll shared on Facebook that he was in Oxford, ‘dismantl[ing] a mummy mask for the BBC‘. (I do not know if video if this event exists). That Obbink was involved can hardly be doubted; this may have been preparatory laundering of the papyri he was about to purchase.

Obbink’s involvement in this sale is further suggested by the fact he was in possession of a photo of the GC Sappho fragments taken on 7 December, 2011 — a month before their sale to the Greens on 7 January, 2012, and so presumably while they were still in Eksioglu’s possession. As his possession of this photo is only documented in 2016, it remains possible that this was shared with him later, but the simplest solution is that he was working with Eksioglu at this point to identify the material he was smuggling out of Egypt and onto the market in London (by way of his home country, Turkey). If Obbink had indeed identified the GC Sappho fragments prior to their sale, he almost certainly also saw P.Sapph.Obbink.

If this is indeed the correct re-creation of events, then there was never a collector who brought the new papyrus to Obbink’s attention — he was aware of it even before it hit the market. So new questions arise: who was trying to sell the papyrus in 2013? Did Scott Carroll buy it along with the GC fragments? Did Eksioglu hold onto it for another 18 months? Or did Dirk Obbink buy it himself?

Details of Obbink’s own collecting and dealing have slowly come to light in the past few years; we now know (from Sabar’s article) that he was personally selling papryi to the Green Collection from January 2010 until February 2013. Most famously, of course, he sold them ‘First Century Mark’ and other Oxyrhynchus papyri owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (he denies these allegations, but the evidence publicly available is damning). The appeal of a new Sappho poem would be obvious to him, as would the potential for profit — after all, he didn’t need to go far to get a world-class Oxford papyrologist to authenticate it.

This is all admittedly speculative, but there are a few other data that might suggest Obbink may have been motivated to sell the Sappho papyrus in the summer of 2013. As already noted, he had stopped selling to the Green Collection in February of that year, perhaps because he realised he had overstepped by selling Oxyrhynchus material to a man who couldn’t keep his mouth shut (Dan Wallace announced ‘First Century Mark’ apparently at Scott Carroll’s behest, on 1 February 2013, three days before the sale was finalised. As Higgin’s Guardian article lays out, it was the loose ends from this event that eventually snared Obbink).

Could he have been motivated to sell the Sappho papyrus after this revenue stream had been cut? It was also midway through 2012 that his employment at the University of Michigan (for a cool $105,000/year) was terminated, some time after it had been revealed that he was double-dipping by still teaching at Oxford, too (a discovery detailed in Sabar’s article). The evidence is quite circumstantial. But we do know that it was in 2013 that he first took an interest in Cottonland Castle in Baylor, a money-pit he would end up buying the next year. He certainly seems to have enjoyed the prerogatives of wealth.

It is not clear whether the 2013 brochure resulted in a sale or not. If it was, it was not mentioned in the provenance section of the 2015 brochure, as Sampson notes, but later in the article he still remains open to the possibility that a private sale was brokered on 13 August, 2013. Having seen the 2015 brochure, he is certainly in a better position to judge than I am; I also do not know the intricacies of private treaty sales, and whether an old brochure would be re-used for a completely new sale, rather than a second go-around. It therefore seems simplest to me that there was no 2013 sale. Why this may be we can only guess: perhaps the provenance was unconvincing, or the asking price too high. But unless a collector solicited in 2013 shares their story, I doubt we will ever know for sure.

It should admitted that a much less involved version of this narrative is possible. Beyond, apparently, identifying the poem and author, there is no ‘smoking gun’ linking Obbink to the 2013 ‘sale’. It is just possible that Eksioglu sold it in early in 2012 to someone else, and Obbink was genuinely brought in as an outside expert when it was put on the market again. Because of the privacy of the market, it is likely we will always be dealing with less than complete information. On balance of probabilities, however, it is hard to assume Obbink is something like an innocent party, especially in light of the evidence from 2015.

Whatever happened in 2013, the timeline Sampson identifies in 2014-5 is openly shocking. The papyrus was publicly announced on 28 January, 2014, some six months after the 2013 ‘sale’. The flurry of media and scholarly attention it received is well-outlined in Sampson and Uhlig’s Eidolon article. Sappho wasn’t just a rock star — she was even better. At least for a while, P.Sapph.Obbink was probably the most famous papyrus in the world.

Obbink wasn’t quite in the meantime. In between publicising and publishing the poems, he was told by the Egypt Exploration Society to cut ties with the Greens in July 2014 (a conversation vividly recounted by Sabar). On September 30th, he bought Cottonland Castle for upwards of $270,000, with apparently $1,400,000 in planned renovations (Sabar). Then, on 31 October, 2014, Obbink went into business with Mahmoud Elder, incorporating Castle Folio, a company that ‘works with… experts and collectors to help identify, preserve and monetize private collections‘. Elder would later advertise that he had ‘expanded [a] dealer’s online presence to connect with an eager network of buyers‘. It seems that Obbink was ramping up his activity on the market, perhaps because the Green Collection was no longer an accessible font of money. Could he have had a specific sale in mind?

On 9 January, 2015, Obbink presented P.Sapph.Obbink at the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in New Orleans over Skype. This was the culmination of almost a year of press coverage surrounding the new poems, and represented an opportunity for their vetting and acceptance by the profession. Four days later, the brochure, which had not been edited since 27 August, 2013, was edited again. And there can be no doubt that Obbink was involved in the process: as Sampson notes, the new brochure does not cite Obbink’s SCS talk, nor the earlier TLS article, but rather his forthcoming article in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (194), ‘Interim Notes on “Two New Poems of Sappho”‘, which would not be published until 15 July, 2015. Whoever was preparing the sale had access to Obbink’s unpublished material: the inescapable conclusion is that Obbink was personally involved. Six weeks later, on 26 February 2015, the brochure was published and the papyrus advertised for sale with an asking price of $12,000,000, according to two collectors who inquired. Before this figure was announced in Sampson’s article, the estimated asking price was £800,000. A year of publicity and public association with an Oxford professor had clearly raised its prestige — at least in the eyes of its owner. We do not know whether the sale was realised, or if it was at what price.

The sequence is shameless. Whether Obbink owned the papyrus or was simply working to help a friend sell it (Scott Carroll? Mahmoud Elder?), it now seems that the public announcement of the papyrus was solely designed to drum up interest in a sale and increase the asking price. It is possible that after no sale was realised in 2013 (as I think most likely), Obbink realised that it was within his power to authenticate the papyrus publicly, expose it to the scrutiny and acceptance of the guild (there remains no good reason to think it is fake), and thereby mitigate whatever concerns hindered the first attempted sale. Perhaps, too, he was motivated by a professional desire to make it public before it disappeared into the ether. But he had no such scruples in 2013.

Much of this is speculative, and more information will (hopefully) trickle out from the murk surrounding the antiquities market. But the data we have, based on the new information from Sampson’s article, contextualised by the invaluable work of Roberta Mazza, Brent Nongbri, Candida Moss, Ariel Sabar, Charlotte Higgins, and many others, allows a plausible narrative to be reconstructed. Obbink was involved with the papyrus from its first ‘discovery’, tried and failed to sell it in 2013, and staged an advertising campaign in 2014 and 2015 using the entire discipline of Classical Studies as patsies to drive up the market value of an artefact he should never have owned, all while acting as the heroic scholar who dared to deal with collectors in the interest of sharing information that would otherwise be lost. A dramatic image, maybe, but one that fits a scholar who had already betrayed the principles of his guild.

The timeline I constructed while preparing this post can be viewed here. It is not exhaustive, and is primarily concerned with Obbink’s interactions with the Sappho papyri. Please get in touch if there is anything you think should be added.

Richard Bott offered valuable feedback, and saved me from more embarrassing mistakes than I would like to admit.

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