Last September, New York City’s Swann Galleries were advertising the sale of an invaluable piece of Spanish and Mexican history: a 500-year-old letter involving Hernán Cortés, the Spanish military leader and colonizer. The letter was expected to sell for somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 until a group of academics intervened. Reuters reports that the letter was one of a cluster of Cortés documents that had been stolen out of the National Archive of Mexico (AGN) and put up for sale. What’s even more shocking is that this is not the first time that important and valuable pieces of history have been stolen from a national archive, prominent library, or museum and ended up on the block at a prominent auction house.
The thefts would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the investigations of amateur sleuths and professional academics María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, a scholar of Spanish colonial books, Michel Oudijk, a Dutch philologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and María del Carmen Martínez, a Cortés scholar at the University of Valladolid in Spain. The suspicions of the group were aroused when a sudden flurry of Cortés papers emerged on the market in 2017. Grañén and Oudijk contacted Mexican antiquities authorities in 2018 and 2019 but when no action was taken by the government, they took matters into their own hands.
Together with Martínez, whose research involved taking thousands of photographs of AGN manuscripts, and the genealogical resources of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they were able to trace the origins of 10 manuscripts that had come up for auction. The Mexican Foreign Ministry and U.S. Department of Justice are currently working together to repatriate the 10 missing manuscripts. Currently none of the auction houses involved—which include Swann, Bonhams, and Christie’s—have disclosed the names of buyers or sellers (as is common practice for auction houses) but it’s likely that the US government will subpoena this information as part of their investigation. At this point it should become clear who was responsible for surgically removing the documents from their bindings at the AGN and passing them on to other vendors. Grañén told Reuters, “We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the other robberies and looting of national heritage.”
Sadly, this is anything but a one off.
In April 2020, Pennsylvania archivist Gregory Priore was ordered to three years home confinement and 12 years of probation for stealing more than $8.1 million worth of rare books and material from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Before his arrest, Priore had worked at the library for 30 years as an archivist and the sole manager of the William R. Oliver Special Collections Room. Over the course of nearly 25 years Priore stole roughly 320 items from the library, badly damaging many atlases and folios in the process. Priore would hide the items in manila envelopes or larger items but sometimes he simply hand-carried rare books out of the building. He would then deliver the objects to John Schulman, the proprietor of Caliban’s book shop and an occasional expert on PBS’s Antique Roadshow, who would sell them.
The thefts were discovered as part of a routine insurance appraisal conducted in 2017. Some of the more valuable items stolen included a 400-year-old Bible (later located in a museum in the Netherlands), a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (since recovered), and a still-missing German version of Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s, Travels in the Interior of North America, which was valued at $1.2 million. Police called it the largest antique book art theft in the world. Alexander P. Bicket, the Allegheny County judge who presided over the trial, told Priore and Schulman that they had betrayed their professions and the library, he further indicated that had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic he would have sentenced them to time in prison.
The University of Oxford has also found itself embroiled in scandal. On March 2, 2020, student newspaper the Oxford Blue reported that Dr. Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur grant-winning associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature, was detained by Thames Valley Police in connection with the disappearance of papyrus fragments out of the University’s Sackler Library. It is alleged that priceless ancient papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection, which were housed at the Sackler and owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, had been sold to Hobby Lobby Inc. and the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
As was the case with the recent Cortés papers, the unprovenanced character of the papyri in Museum of the Bible’s collection was first revealed by academics, who lobbied authorities and the Museum to reveal the origins of many of the items in their collection. In June 2019, a redacted contract, allegedly between Obbink and Hobby Lobby, for fragments of the four Gospels was released by the Museum of the Bible prompting the EES to review its holdings. It subsequently emerged that many other papyrus fragments in the 5000-piece collection were also missing.
Most of the items absent from the Sackler are early Christian papyri or fragments of the Bible, while a spokesperson for Museum of the Bible refused to disclose how much Hobby Lobby had paid for the artifacts, Dr. Carl Graves, director of the EES, has described them as “priceless and irreplaceable.” A statement posted on the Egypt Exploration Society website in February 2021 revealed that the Museum of the Bible fragments had been repatriated to Egypt and that the police investigation into their unauthorized removal was ongoing. Dr. Obbink is no longer employed by the University of Oxford and does enjoy any of the privileges of emeritus status. Obbink has denied any wrongdoing.
What makes the unauthorized removal of unstudied papyri or other unpublished documents from libraries so devastating is the impact that it has on our knowledge of the past. Brent Nongbri, a professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society and one of those to draw attention to the Oxyrhynchus thefts, told The Daily Beast “unpublished materials stolen from libraries and museums can fly under the radar on the market much more easily, since most of the academic community is unaware of the existence of unpublished pieces.” It’s less risky for the thief but “it’s the unpublished and unstudied pieces that have the most to teach us.” In the case of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, he said, the impact is huge. “As far as I know, some 120 papyri, all of them unpublished, were missing; about 40 have been recovered from American collectors. The contents of half of these have been identified, and they are all Christian (or possibly Jewish) literary texts. All told, about 160 Christian literary texts from Oxyrhynchus have been published. The EES hasn't revealed the content of the 100 other missing pieces, but if that pattern holds, we may be talking about a loss of as much as 20% of the total number of Christian books found at Oxyrhynchus.”
When items go missing from public libraries or national archives, it’s not unusual for the theft to turn out to be an inside job. This was the case for the U.S. National Archives (then called the National Archive and Records Administration) in 2002 when Shawn Aubitz, a curator at the Archival Operations Branch in Philadelphia, was arrested for stealing hundreds of documents. The theft was discovered when an eagle-eyed National Park Service employee saw items up for sale on eBay. Aubitz subsequently served 21 months in a federal prison. In 2003 Samuel R. Berger, a former national security adviser during the Clinton administration, repeatedly removed classified documents from the National Archives: he did a hundred hours of community service and was fined $50,000. These are just two cases involving the National Archives, but there are many more. In 2008 Paul Brachfeld, then inspector general of the archives, told Smithsonian Magazine, “If I come to the National Archives today and I have larceny in my blood, I can probably walk out and make some good money.”
On other occasions it is emboldened experts, like East Coast map dealer Edward Forbes Smiley, who are to blame. Smiley sold his wares privately and was only discovered when a quick-thinking librarian found an X-Acto blade on the floor of the Beinecke, Yale University’s rare book and manuscript library. He was caught with seven maps on him, including a 500-year-old example worth more than $150,000. After Smalley was arrested, five other prestigious libraries realized that they had been robbed of nearly $3 million worth of maps. Smiley served 42 months and was released in January 2010.
The recent thefts from the National Archive of Mexico (AGN) highlight the vulnerability of public collections, archives, and university libraries. Even the community of experts who are charged with conserving, curating, and studying these artifacts have, Steve Twomey has put it sometimes failed “to treat rare collections as community property instead of as a cultural ATM.” The solution is not only the introduction of additional security and surveillance methods (such as those Yale introduced after the Smiley affair), but a shift in how libraries and institutions regard their experts. Greg Priore was the sole manager of the Collections room from which he stole; others were archivists, experts, or scholars who were implicitly trusted with valuable artifacts and had free rein in valuable collections.
Given how often it is that volunteers accidentally stumble across stolen material, the real worry is how many national archives are plundered without anyone noticing and how few questions are asked when artifacts reach auction houses. The Cortés papers and missing Oxyrhynchus pieces were identified because of academic intervention. While some auction houses report items they suspect are stolen, others don’t seem to be asking enough questions or, worse, ignoring the problem entirely. In the meantime, national archives are being plundered for personal profit.