Originally Published: 2015-02-04

Donna Yates in Bible History Daily on the AIA-St. Louis controversy:

“Selling an object to a private collector removes it from public view and public access,” Yates explained to Bible History Daily. “This, many believe, violates the very purpose of a museum or public collection: to preserve the past for everyone to access. When in a private collection, the once-public object is now likely off limits. The private owner can choose to never let anyone see it. They can choose to smash it.

Meanwhile, a simultaneous controversy brews over a paper read at the 2015 AIA/SCS joint meeting:

Roberta Mazza has also recently linked two disconcerting videos demonstrating exactly this sort of treatment of antiquities in the hands of private collectors: 1

I would note that these exact sorts of practices2 are why we now have a scant ca.200 intact Herculaneum scrolls out of the excavated thousands, while we are now on the cusp of non-destructive imaging techniques for them.3 Additionally, I highly doubt that this sort of painstaking and destructive physical intervention would be undertaken lightly by many institutionally-affiliated professional conservators.

So on the one hand, we have the AIA condemning the sale of antiquities into private hands, and on the other, a panel held at their annual joint meeting (though on the “SCS” side), presenting what are purported to be the spoils of exactly that, sold by an apparently-unscathed institution with an AIA society in good standing4


  1. See: Sider, D. The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. Getty Trust Publications: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. pp.47-57. Sider details various highly unsuccessful techniques for extracting text from the scrolls after their discovery, including: pouring mercury through the edges of the scrolls, immersing entire scrolls in mercury, immersing scrolls in rose water, and holding scrolls in a chamber with various types of gases. 

  2. See: The Use of micro-CT in the Study of Archaeological Artifacts and X-rays reveal words in Vesuvius-baked scrolls

  3. There is an explicit distinction to be drawn here between an AIA society itself violating the AIA code of ethics, versus the institution they belong to doing so. Examining James Robinson’s The Story of the Bodmer Papyri (p.92) to see if there was any controversy associated with the original sale of the material by the University of Mississippi reveals it was apparently a rather quiet matter. However, Obbink states that the cartonnage was deaccessioned “in order to purchase Faulkner materials” while Robinson only states that this is referring to the sale of “the two Coptic codices” (i.e. “Mississippi Coptic Codex I” aka the Crosby-Schøyen codex and “Mississippi Coptic Codex II” aka P.Bodmer XXII) to New York dealer H.P. Kraus for $250,000 in 1981. Do the unpublished letters cited by Robinson also include in this sale the folder of “Papyri Fragments; Gk.” described by Willis (which Obbink says are what included the original cartonnage)? In any case this also serves to illustrate the incentives at work here: Mississippi originally paid $4,500 for the codices in 1955 (if you were wondering, you would need 17% interest compounded annually to beat this investment’s performance).