Oxford don suspended over alleged artefact theft could still gain from sale

An Oxford academic suspected of involvement in the alleged theft of ancient Gospel manuscripts stands to gain from a government appeal to purchase an important artefact for the nation.

Dr Dirk Obbink, associate professor in papyrology and Greek at Christ Church, is the owner of the artefact – a unique book dating from around 1414.

The arts minister, Helen Whateley, has announced a temporary export bar on the precious Myrowr of Recluses, or “Mirror of Recluses”, a Middle-English volume of advice addressed to female anchorites and religious hermits.

Last summer, Obbink put it up for sale at Bloomsbury Auctions in London where, on 2 July, it was sold to an overseas buyer.

The temporary export bar has now been placed on the item because of its outstanding importance for British history and culture.

It is a measure that gives UK buyers the chance to fundraise to purchase the item. A UK buyer would have to raise £168,750 by 13 April to save it for the nation.

The owner, Obbink, a former recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, was suspended from duties at Oxford in October pending an investigation into the disappearance of some 100 ancient papyrus fragments from the Oxyrhynchus Collection, cared for in the Sackler Library in Oxford and owned by the Egypt Exploration Society. The matter was reported to Thames Valley police on 12 November.

With an item of the quality of The Myrowr of Recluses – the only other known copy belongs to the British Library, and is incomplete – a museum or library would be expected to attempt to acquire the item. That could lead to the unusual scenario of a civic institution raising funds from the public to acquire an item from a person who is suspected of wrongdoing.

One senior academic said: “Given that there is a police investigation it seems reasonable to question whether any of the activities Obbink has been involved with should be allowed to proceed. The process should be suspended.”

In June last year, what appeared to be purchase agreements for some of the items suspected of having been stolen – four early manuscripts of the Gospels – were circulated online. They apparently bore Obbink’s name and signature.

It was shortly after the appearance of these documents in public that The Myrowr of Recluses was auctioned. Obbink had bought it at an auction at Christie’s in London four years earlier, on 16 July 2014. At that time, the hammer price was £182,500. When he sold it in 2019 it fetched just £135,000.

If the purchase agreements circulated this summer are genuine, the ancient papyrus Gospel manuscripts were seemingly being sold by Obbink to the Greens, a billionaire American evangelical Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafting stores.

The Greens opened a Museum of the Bible in Washington in 2017. The family is most famous for having secured a supreme court ruling exempting Hobby Lobby from providing morning-after pills to employees under Obamacare, owing to their opposition to abortion.

Obbink, who did not respond to request for comment, has denied any wrongdoing. “The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false,” he has said in a statement.

“I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged. I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”

The attempted sale of The Myrowr of Recluses sheds light on the commercial activities of Obbink, who has run at least two businesses marketing artefacts, controversially for a figure in academia, where involvement in the market may be regarded as a conflict of interest.

In 2016, the Egypt Exploration Society removed Obbink from his role as one of the general editors of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Series partly “because of concerns”, it has said in a statement, “which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts”.

Obbink’s businesses, the Castle Folio and Oxford Ancient, have operated in an office above a branch of TK Maxx in Oxford. Aside from the items allegedly wrongfully sold, a number of ancient Greek manuscripts were legally sold to Hobby Lobby from these businesses. Hobby Lobby is also understood to own several items, including manuscripts, dating from between 1100 and 1600, which it purchased from Obbink.

A DCMS spokesman said: “We agreed with the advice from the independent committee that The Myrowr of Recluses is a national treasure and an export bar was warranted to try and keep it in the UK. We are not aware of any evidence of wrongdoing in relationship to the manuscript.”

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