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  When these unique, unpublished, and priceless books came into his hands, he shredded them.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!


The gospel of Judas saga continues

Herbert Krosney, who wrote much the best book on the skullduggery around the finding, selling and dismemberment of the manuscript of the ps.Gospel of Judas has written an update on events since then.  This can be found here, at a page run by Marvin Meyer.  It’s explosive stuff.

The manuscript floated around the art world for 20 years.  It was then sold to an Akron art dealer, Bruce Ferrini, who had started to dismember it and sell it piecemeal.  But he was unable to pay the seller, who repossessed it.  There was always a question, therefore, of whether Ferrini had actually handed back all that he still had.  Ferrini then went bankrupt.

… on March 17th, 2008, St. Patrick’s Day, when Ferrini was finally deposed (after many attempts to get him on the stand) in Akron. The proceedings took a full day.  Ferrini not only admitted that he had withheld materials in 2001.  He also left the court-supervised proceedings at lunchtime, along with his lawyer, and returned to the court an hour or so later with a sort of lawyer’s briefcase with what appeared to be full page fragments inside.

These were delivered to the custody of the court-appointed receiver, and it was agreed that they would be photographed and identified by an expert, a Coptologist, but under strict conditions of secrecy and not for public distribution or knowledge.  No one in the know – very few people outside the lawyers, I should add – were allowed to see the photographs, nor was any public report on their contents permitted.  This secrecy was court-ordered and agreed to by all the lawyers and claimants in the case.

The photographs were sent to Prof. Gregor Wurst … What [Gregor Wurst] discovered within these materials was essentially the balance of the Gospel of Judas.

The site also gives more detail on the missing material.

The question remains, however, as to what has become of the other three manuscripts from Egypt, sold at the same time to Ferrini and given the same treatment.  The Sahidic ms. of three letters of Paul seems to have been recovered, thankfully.  But of the Coptic Exodus, we know little.  The Greek mathematical treatise is still unpublished also.  All this secrecy…

Thanks to Evangelical Textual Criticism for this one.


Gospel of Judas, Coptic Paul, Greek Exodus

Sometime before 1983, peasants in Egypt found four manuscript books somewhere. They were smuggled out of the country, and first seen by scholars in 1983, in boxes. They were hawked around the art market for more than 20 years. One of these contained the ps.gospel of Judas; the others were a Greek mathematical treatise, a Coptic version of three of Paul’s letters, and a copy of Exodus.

In an evil hour, these papyrus books went sold to a US antiquities dealer named Bruce Ferrini, who dismembered them and sold them, a bit at a time, to his contacts.  Ferrini eventually double-crossed his supplier, and then went bankrupt.

It seems that Ferrini retained fragments of the books, despite undertaking not to.  Despite being bankrupt, he seems to have operated a shop on e-Bay at one period.  Some of fragments then bought by collectors are now going around again on e-Bay.  A scholar is intending to purchase at least some of them and thereby get them out of this circus.

Silence has largely descended on this business.  Dutch art-dealer turned game-keeper Michel van Rijn used to expose all the dealings, but his site shut down after death threats.  Yet three of the four manuscripts are still missing.  In all this silence, it’s impossible to say whether all the pages and fragments that went to Ferrini are recovered.  I think I know where the Greek mathematical treatise is; and the anti-social scholars who have been commissioned to publish it but have not done so.  The Exodus may be in pieces; the whereabouts of the majority of the Paul are utterly unknown to me.

The fact that shreds of the gospel of Judas are turning up online can only mean that even now the find is not in safe keeping.  And every shred, remember, is a word of the text.  It’s a little bit of ancient knowledge, gone forever unless we are lucky.  It’s enough to make anyone weep.

Later:  I’ve just been to look for pieces of “manuscripts” generally on e-Bay.  There are offers of what is plainly pages from one manuscript, being dismembered and sold page by page by some reprehensible and greedy individual.  There are obvious fakes being offered.  The vision of destruction and dispersal, of the sheer lack of ethics, is horrible to see.


Coptic Gospel of Judas – critical edition released

Well, I’ve just learned that the critical edition of the Coptic ‘Gospel of Judas’ has finally appeared.  It came out very quietly over the summer, and it seems that hardly anyone noticed. If you want a copy, it’s very cheap indeed. It’s on Amazon here.

The volume also contains the other texts from Codex Tchacos. Long-term readers will remember the incredible story (here) of how a fourth century papyrus book was found under dubious circumstances, smuggled out of Egypt, bought and sold secretly, hidden in 1983 in a bank vault, sold to a dodgy dealer named Bruce Ferrini in the late 90’s, repossessed, and eventually published by National Geographic.

The edition contains all three texts found in the manuscript: the gospel of Judas, the letter of Peter to Philip and James, and the book of Allogenes.

Nothing whatever has been heard since of the other three manuscripts sold at the same time.  Bits of the Coptic Exodus keep surfacing.  The scholars entrusted with publishing the Greek mathematical treatise have done nothing further to publish it, as far as I know.  The manuscript containing a Coptic text of Paul’s letters remains resolutely lost — or rather, lost as far as you or I know.

Damn all these secretive, self-serving papyrologists.  How dare they play their little games with the heritage of all mankind?