A mystery partly resolved

A while back I wrote about a scholarly mystery: what appears to have been the sale of certain ancient papyri by someone who had no right to sell them. Now we have an update by the Egypt Exploration Society

On 25 June 2019 the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) posted a statement on its website that it was working with the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) to clarify whether any texts from the EES Oxyrhynchus collection had been sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents, and if so, when and by whom. This was in response to the online publication by Dr Brent Nongbri, following its release by Professor Michael Holmes of the MOTB, of a redacted copy of a contract of 17 January 2013 between Professor Dirk Obbink and Hobby Lobby Stores for the sale of six items to Hobby Lobby, including four New Testament fragments probably of EES provenance. This statement reports our findings to date.

With the help of photographs provided by the MOTB, the EES has so far identified thirteen texts from its collection, twelve on papyrus and one on parchment, all with biblical or related content, which are currently held by the MOTB (see the attached list). These texts were taken without authorisation from the EES, and in most of the thirteen cases the catalogue card and photograph are also missing. Fortunately, the EES has back-up records which enable us to identify missing unpublished texts.

There still seems to be reluctance on the part of EES, and indeed anyone else, to say “Dirk Obbink stole papyri from our collection, sold them, and kept the money for himself” — but by this point it has become difficult to imagine any other explanation. 

The post adds that the EES “is also pursuing identification and recovery of other texts, or parts of texts, which have or may have been illicitly removed from its collection,” so this story may not be over. And the post concludes by saying that the “broader legal issues arising from these findings … are under consideration by all the institutions concerned.” Does that mean that they may not press charges? Perhaps if the offender makes full restitution?