When the National Geographic Society announced to great fanfare last week that it had gained access to a 1,700-year-old document known as the Gospel of Judas, it described how a deteriorating manuscript unearthed in Egypt three decades ago had made its way through the shady alleys of the antiquities market to a safe deposit box in a New York suburb and eventually to a Swiss art dealer who "rescued" it from obscurity.
But there is even more to the story.
The art dealer was herself detained several years ago in an unrelated Italian investigation of antiquities smuggling. And after she failed to profit from the sale of the gospel in the private market, she struck a lucrative deal with a foundation run by her lawyer.
Later, National Geographic paid the foundation to restore the manuscript and bought the rights to the text and the story about the discovery. As part of her arrangement with the foundation, the dealer, Frieda Tchacos Nussberger, stands to gain $1 million to $2 million from those National Geographic projects, her lawyer said.
Details of how the manuscript was found are clouded. According to National Geographic, it was found by farmers in an Egyptian cave in the 1970s, sold to a dealer and then passed through various hands in Europe and on to the United States. Legal issues surrounding its transit are vague.
I want to know how it came to be stolen from an antiquities dealer in Egypt, and then resurface in the hands of that same dealer ...
No one questions the authenticity of the Judas Gospel, which depicts Judas Iscariot, not as a betrayer of Jesus, but as his favored disciple.
But the emerging details are raising concerns among some archaeologists and other scholars at a time of growing scrutiny of dealers who sell antiquities and of the museums and collectors who buy them. The information also calls into question the completeness of National Geographic's depiction of some individuals like Tchacos Nussberger and its disclosure of all the financial relationships involved.
Terry Garcia, vice president for mission programs at National Geographic, which is based in Washington, said the organization had "heard some rumors" about possible legal problems involving Tchacos Nussberger but could not confirm them. He also noted that the organization had disclosed its relationship with the Swiss foundation, the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art.
I'm not sure where they 'disclosed this relationship' ... in the television program, it was mentioned only in passing. On the website, we can read that the NG "collaborated" with the Maecenas Foundation and/or that the Maecenas Foundation approached the NG "to play a key role in the authentication". That's not really "disclosure" ...
Those 'rumors' seem to be what Michael van Rijn was talking about a few years ago (I can't access his blog anymore ... not sure if it has disappeared or if this is just one of those vagaries of the web things). Back in 2002, the following was posted by him to the Museum Securities Network list:
The big news I break today is that mega Zurich based art dealer Frieda Tchacos was arrested in Cyprus on request of the Italian police. Although she tries to fight it, she will soon be a "guest " in a small room in Rome. As I announced earlier on my site, Frieda had given the Carabinieri a Marble Statue of Artimides, which was "valued" by her at 4,5 million dollars. Mario Roberty did her leg work in Rome. What a great lawyer! The Italians accepted the statue kindly but were definitely not fooled! While she thought she had put the Italians to sleep with this "bribe", the Carabineri continued their investigation. Frieda is fighting by her high powered lawyers her extradition. She is proposing a bond of 300.000 Euro to be allowed to leave her cell in Cyprus and wait under house arrest in Zurich for the extradition proceedings.
The other big news is that Professor Dario Del Bufalo, third man in the Italian Ministry of Culture, traveled with her and her Basel based devils advocate Mario Roberty to Tajikistan, on her expenses. As already announced by us in the past. This important Italian politician and art historian is crazily embarrassed and afraid that I am going to spill the beans on his dealings with Frieda and Mario. …… of course I will :-) Frieda sold to the likes of the Getty museum and other important institutions around the world many stolen and smuggled antiquities. Mario Roberty, being her legal cover up all the way. You wonder where that leaves her good amigo Professor Dario Del Bufalo? Of course you will hear this soon.
[I've underlined it to clarify that it isn't part of the NYT article]
The organization did not buy the document. Instead, it paid $1 million to the Maecenas Foundation, effectively for the manuscript's contents.
The foundation was set up some years ago by Tchacos Nussberger's lawyer, Mario Roberty, well before it became involved with the Judas Gospel.
Roberty said the foundation was involved in projects like returning antiquities to their countries of origin. He said that when Tchacos Nussberger turned over the document to the foundation in 2001, he assured officials in Egypt that the manuscript would be returned there. He said the foundation had clear legal title to the document.
Focussing first on Mario Roberty, we should note that he is/was lawyer for the antiquities dealer who sold that controversial Apollo to the Cleveland Museum of Art. From Action News:
Phoenix Ancient Art, the dealership that sold the Apollo to the museum, has run afoul of the law before, said Elia, Bell and others.
Ali Aboutaam, who runs the gallery's branch in Geneva, Switzerland, co-owns the business with his brother, Hicham.
Ali Aboutaam was convicted in absentia in Egypt last year on charges of smuggling and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His lawyer, Mario Roberty, told the newspaper the charges were "absolutely ridiculous" and politically motivated.
Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty in New York in June to a misdemeanor federal charge that he had falsified a customs document to hide the origins of an ancient silver drinking vessel the gallery later sold for $950,000.
Now to be fair, Roberty has been involved in the repatriation of items ... from the CPROT list:
A large stone head of Bodhisattva, in the controversial collection of the Miho Museum, Japan (see: 'In The News' CWC issue 2), has been identified as stolen from Boxing County, China. Cultural Heritage Watch claimed that a picture of the sculpture had been published in an archaeological report in Wenwu magazine in 1983. The Miho Museum's Swiss-based lawyer, Mario Roberty, said that the discovery was a shock to his museum clients since they had exercised 'careful due diligence' by checking that it did not appear on any available data base. It had been acquired from Eskenazi Oriental Art, London, in 1996 who had acquired it in good faith from another London art dealer. Roberty added that, although under no legal obligation (Japan has not ratified the UNESCO or Unidroit conventions) the Miho Museum would arrange for sculpture to be repatriated
And we still have not been told about the Maecenas Foundation. I raised questions about it and its apparent connection to Japanese religious cult quite a while ago and I have not yet heard/read anything to calm down the 'suspicions' center of my brain. I mean, surely I'm not the only one who wonders about a 'foundation' which has its own museum of antiquities and whose founder seems to tread some fine line between legitimate antiquities deals and, well, 'the Museum Case'. I can't help but wonder whether Mr. Roberty's name and/or foundation is going to be mentioned in the Marion True trial. I also can't help but wonder whether the National Geographic Society has found itself a (willing?) dupe in an effort to add value to a manuscript of questionable provenance and/or give that manuscript some 'legitimacy' from an ownership point of view. I don't think we're getting the full story and I can't help but suspect the full story is bigger than the story of the Gospel of Judas.
Here's the rest of the IHT article ...
Also worth reading is an excerpt from an AP piece with some remarks from James Robinson (this comes from the Daily Bulletin):
Robinson, who taught at the Claremont Graduate University, said the splashy release sensationalized the document far beyond its real importance. The release, he said, is part of a massive marketing campaign designed to maximize profits on a discovery that will have little effect on the way society sees Judas.''
He released a book last week, ‘‘The Secrets of Judas, the Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel.''
Swiss owners -- who had difficulty selling the document itself to antiquities dealers because international law frowns on selling smuggled discoveries -- needed another plan, Robinson said.
"They lit upon the idea of selling the (publication rights). The National Geographic Society bit hook, line and sinker to have exclusive rights to publish (on) the Easter season,'' he said."They sold the public a bill of goods.''
The National Geographic Society, reached Thursday on short notice, declined to comment.
The lost gospel portrays Judas as the protagonist in the ancient story of betrayal by handing Jesus over to the authorities at his request - prompting speculation that the work could change the way history treats him.
Robinson, who has been called America's foremost expert on ancient Coptic texts, said he sees it another way. He said that the gospel, recorded on papyrus leaves in the Coptic language, is an authentic second-century document but contains no new information about what happened to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the thirty pieces of silver given as blood money or the betraying kiss.
Nevertheless, the release of the material may rekindle debates about Judas that began as long ago as the second or third century, noted Karen L. King, a professor of the history of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, in a New York Times article last week.
"You can see how early Christians could say, if Jesus' death was all part of God's plan, then Judas' betrayal was part of God's plan,'' King said. ";So what does that make Judas? Is he the betrayer, or the facilitator of salvation, the guy who makes the crucifixion possible?''
The anonymous authors of the gospel are believed to be Gnostics, members of an ancient Christian sect interested in promoting their religion in a book of mythology, according to Robinson, now known as the "Gospel of Judas.''
Although the gospel, contained in a codex with several other ancient documents, has tremendous value to scholars, it will have little effect on modern Christianity, or how we view Judas' intentions, Robinson said.
‘‘This text, which doesn't tell us anything new about what happened in 30 AD, just tells us what Gnostic mythology made of the story 100 or more years later,'' Robinson said.
Robinson's interest with the ";Gospel of Judas'' began long ago when on May 15, 1983, when he was approached by a professor about a manuscript on sale in Geneva, Switzerland.
The codex containing the "Gospel of Judas'' had been smuggled out of Egypt about 10 years earlier, where it was found by an garlic farmer who stumbled upon a limestone box in a remote burial cave.
The professor wanted him to come along because of Robinson's expertise in the Coptic language, but he couldn't make the trip and sent one of his students in Rome in his place.
He had a weekend to raise money to buy the document, and received a pledge of $50,000. The seller demanded $3 million. The student took the manuscript, excused himself to go to the bathroom, and then memorized what he could before giving it back, Robinson said.
The student made out the name Judas, but didn't know at that time it was Judas Iscariot.
The document eventually disappeared from public view. Though some articles were published in scientific journals about the discovery of the codex, little was heard of it until last year, when a rumor began circulating about a "Gospel of Judas,'' he said.
In November, just before Robinson was to speak at a lecture in Pennsylvania, he learned his former student was involved in the secret sale of the document and the negotiation of full publication rights to the National Geographic Society, he said. He saw the student, who was a panelist, at the presentation.
All parties involved were sworn to secrecy, Robinson said, in order to make the greatest possible impact when presented to the public.
In his book, Robinson quotes a message e-mailed to him by a colleague, Steve Emmel, who joined the National Geographic Society's advisory panel on the project.
"I have cautioned (National Geographic Society) against sensationalism ... but there are some people involved in the project who do not seem to understand much of anything except stupid sensationalism,'' Emmel wrote."I can certainly not guarantee that the publication of the text and translation will not be accompanied by some phony hoopla.
The Daily Bulletin piece also has an audio interview with Robinson ...
UPDATE: Michel van Rijn's webpage still works ... folks interested in the angle being pursued here might want to spend some time there ...