What was once a bright constellation in the universe of art and antiquities is disintegrating in an online auction, mouse-click by mouse-click, in a major step toward satisfying millions of dollars of an Akron collector's debt.
The continuing fall of Bruce Ferrini from international prominence is being documented in real time, as eBay-style bids creep upward on 153 items, many of them ancient religious artifacts.
A 2,800-year-old strip of linen mummy wrap, inscribed with text from the Book of the Dead.
Current bid (as of Friday afternoon): $1.
A Babylonian pottery vessel, ap
proximately 3,800 years old, valued at $3,000 to $5,000.
Current bid: $150.
Ferrini owes some $5 million to a long international list of creditors. Mainly because of the eclectic nature of the collection and the controversy attached to its architect, this auction has been more than two years in the making.
Auction houses shy away
The assets were seized in late summer of 2005. Despite the quality of the goods, the major, mainstream auction houses shied away. The sale is being conducted by the Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, with the items on view at Arte Primitivo Gallery in New York City. Online bidding will continue until the close of business Wednesday.
To view the auction, go to http://arteprimitivo.com and click on the top image of a plank decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The auction was arranged by Akron attorney Scott Haley who, as receiver, represents the creditors and is, for legal purposes, the current owner of a remarkable body of artifacts, some dating to hundreds of years B.C.
The auction house describes the sale as ''a liquidation auction of an eclectic collection of Old World antiquities, illuminated manuscript leaves, American Indian pottery, and numerous other interesting collectibles.''
Items include English Romantic poet Lord Byron's personal copies of three of his own books — The Giaour, The Corsair and The Bride of Abydos — which include editing in the author's own handwriting. The estimated value is $10,000 to $20,000.
There is a carved stone section of a wall frieze from India depicting a Buddha in a long flowing robe, about 1,600 years old. Its estimated value is $10,000 to $15,000.
And there are nearly 20 of the illuminated manuscript pages — illustrated sections of text, usually from religious books — that defined Ferrini's high reputation as a collector.
Some not included
The auction does not include the three most valuable and controversial segments of Ferrini's disputed collection. An ongoing legal battle has yet to sort out the true owner of these items, worth millions:
•A batch of biblical artifacts that include fragments from the Book of Exodus and the Letter of Paul to the Colossians. It also includes part of the controversial Gnostic manuscript known as the Gospel of Judas.
•A large marble Assyrian relief believed to have belonged to Alexander the Great.
•Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose display at the John S. Knight Center in 2004 devolved into a contentious public squabble, with court injunctions and lawsuits over missing money, unpaid bills and claims of fraud.
Charlie Bowers is a Cleveland attorney who represents Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos of Switzerland, who claims to be sole owner of the papyrus pages of the Gospel of Judas. He hopes the auction represents a step forward in resolving Ferrini's complex legacy.
''We certainly hope that the receiver gains as much from the auction as possible,'' Bowers said. ''But what does still remain to be determined is the ownership of the other items that we still claim.''
Bowers declined to put a value on the Gospel of Judas fragments, and said doing so would be irrelevant, as his client has promised to donate the artifact to Egypt, where it can be properly archived, displayed and studied.
Ferrini is expected to give a deposition Monday in a Summit County courtroom regarding the ownership. Bowers said Ferrini has produced two more pages of the Judas text and has indicated he will give up claims of ownership. Ferrini's attorney, Tim McKinzie, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ferrini, a Kent State University graduate, began his collecting career as a young man, purchasing a single illustrated leaf from a Cleveland dealer for $27. With a discerning eye and shrewd business sense, he acquired a collection of illuminated manuscripts that was internationally recognized for its quality. In 1995, Ferrini made headlines after exposing a retired Ohio State University professor who was stealing rare manuscript pages from the Vatican.
In 2002, he pledged $6.8 million to Kent State University in the name of his son Matthew, who had died the year before.
The reversal of his fortune had apparently already begun. The first cracks began to appear with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Akron, which brought to the surface his financial collapse.
Ferrini was arrested for contempt of court during the dispute. The following year, he filed for bankruptcy protection. Ferrini's household furnishings were auctioned in fall 2005, raising about $23,000. His home in Bath, valued last year at $1.6 million, was sold at sheriff's sale for a little more than $1 million. He is living in Akron.
The legal battle over Ferrini's debts continues. According to Summit County court documents, he has serially failed to submit court-ordered depositions and is in danger of being found in contempt. He is due to appear Friday to explain his lack of cooperation.
FWIW, most of the Greek stuff appears to have been snapped up already ... provenances are the usual 'from a private NYC collection' or other collections (the "Mr and Mrs Daniel Donner collection" is frequently mentioned; I don't think I've seen that one before)