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 on Long Island and eventually to a Swiss art dealer who "rescued" it from obscurity.
But there is even more to the story.
The art dealer was detained several years ago in an unrelated Italian antiquities smuggling investigation. And after she failed to profit from the sale of the gospel in the private market, she struck a deal with a foundation run by her lawyer that would let her make about as much as she would have made on that sale, or more.
Meanwhile John J. Miller comments:
This is ridiculous. It may very well be that the artifact exists because the people holding it were concerned with making money. They had a financial incentive to protect it. Waldbaum's comment is part and parcel with the academic war on the private antiquities market. A lot of scholars simply can't stand the fact that ancient items might lie in private collections rather than in their own university warehouses, and so they scorn discoveries such as this one.
I'm still dubious about, though open to, the idea that this would work. Museums and archaeologists did engage in for-profit archaeology early in the last century and before and it basically resulted in literally tons of no-value artifacts being plowed up and discarded in the search for the big-money items that wealthy collectors and museums paid them for. Then, what paid was individual objects, not context and association and consequently context and association was largely ignored; what pays now is context and association (in the form of grants and professional prestige). It's difficult to see what a market in individual objects would do to encourage the detailed excavations required for scientific archaeology.
BTW, the reason scholars tend not to like items being in private collections is because they are inaccessible for study. It's what we do. Which is precisely why collectors don't like them sitting in a university warehouse -- they can't look at them.
Eh, I'm devil's advocate for academic archaeologists today. It changes.