The books and the art trade

Every year the winds blow across the desert.  Every year, the sands drift in those winds, heaping up against mysterious worked blocks of ancient sandstone.  Little by little the last visible remains of some forgotten Coptic monastery vanish under the sand.

It’s not just stone work from once proud buildings.  There are books in the sands.  The monks often had occasion to deposit somewhat dodgy codices outside the monastery.  In their day, as in ours, public-funded bodies could be denounced by any busybody for any number of vaguely-specified offences of thought.

Many of these books have come to light in the 20th century.  The Egyptian peasant knows that such anteekahs are as good as money when sold to the Cairo dealers.  The battered papyrus books vanish into the art market.  It is an interesting question how many vanish forever.  But the existence of the trade ensures that none are wantonly destroyed by their finders.

The most recent sensation concerned the Coptic ‘gospel of Judas’.  This, together with a volume containing a Coptic translation of Exodus, another containing three letters of St. Paul in Coptic, and a Greek mathematical treatise, ended up in the USA after a series of dodgy dealings.  They ended up in Akron, Ohio, in the hands of a dealer named Bruce Ferrini.

It is open to few of us, perhaps to injure the human race as a whole, to cause men yet unborn to curse us and to dimish the light of knowledge.  The evil or ignorant Ferrini was an exception.  When these unique, unpublished, and priceless books came into his hands, he shredded them.  His motive for this wicked deed was greed; he could sell the shreds for more money than the intact volumes.  Secretly he did the deed; secretly he sold what he could; and then he went bankrupt. The main bulk of what remained of the ‘gospel’ was repossessed by Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, another dealer of Egyptian extraction to whom it legally belonged. But Mrs Tchacos alleged that Ferrini was holding out on her, and had retained much of the book. She arranged for what she had to be placed in the hands of Mario Roberty, her attorney, and a “Maecenas Foundation”.  The text was then published in an exemplary way.

Then Ferrini died, leaving what remained unsold for lawyers to argue over, and an evil reputation for moralists to comment on.

April DeConick reports:

I just received offprints of an article published in the first volume of Mohr Siebeck’s new journal Early Christianity (link HERE). The article is a preliminary report written by Herbert Krosney, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst about the status of the OHIO fragments of the Gospel of Judas. In the first part of the article, Krosney explains the court battle over the OHIO fragments and their photographs which were analyzed by Gregor Wurst who recognized that they contained the balance of the Gospel of Judas, allowing us to read 90-95% of it.

According to Krosney’s account, the fragments have made their way to Egypt in April 2010 and are under the care of Dr. Zahi Hawass who did not want the fragments to go to Switzerland for conservation first. The rest of the Tchacos Codex remains in Switzerland in the hands of the Maecenas Foundation who is now in a financial battle with Mrs. Frieda Nussberger.

The rest of the article is a sketch of the contents of the fragments and a preliminary transcription and translation based on photographs of the fragments possessed by Nussberger. There has been no distribution of the photographs to scholars other than Meyer and Wurst as far as I know. There is mention that Wurst and Meyer are consulting with the administration in Egypt in order to discover how to proceed in the critical publication of the fragments.

Krosney wrote an excellent and very readable book on the whole sordid story, and seems to have become the chronicler.  It sounds from the above as if the charming Mario Roberty and the formidable Mrs Tchachos have fallen out.  I’m not sure that anyone’s interests are served by part of the book being taken to Egypt.  The persistent secrecy over the photographs is nothing new, sadly.

If anyone has a copy of the article and would care to let me see it, I would be obliged.  We humble members of the public have no access to such grand publications!


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