4/13/06

GJudas: The Michel van Rijn Angle.

The Angle

(Disclaimer: I am simply summarizing here what I have gleaned from van Rijn and others, as I haven't yet read Robinson's book on the same subject, I am not quite clear on what really are the details. Read this as "historical fiction," if you will, kind of like The Da Vinci Code.)

Michel van Rijn brought the possibility of fraudulent dealing behind the GJudas sale to the public's attention via the infamous Artnews all the way back in 2001 (Well, as public as possible for a site that Google doesn't refer to. Please see James M. Robinson's paper linked in a previous post that covers some of this same material and adds in a few wrinkles.) In his first comment on the news item, in Jan. 2001, he hears about Ferrini's initial attempt to purchase this set of six manuscripts. By Sep. 2001, van Rijn uncovers a bit more information and reveals that the manuscript deal he had been tracking in Jan. through Roberty was actually been stolen from a dealer named Hanna in Egypt and smuggled into Geneva years ago before being sent to a safety-deposit box in New York. Then in Dec. 2001, van Rijn finds out that despite this information becoming public Roberty and Tchacos are trying to sell it to a US dealer, who I assume is Bruce Ferrini, it has since come to light that a few others were also approached. There is nothing until Dec. 2004, when van Rijn summarizes the whole affair in light of all the information he has gathered so far, even bringing us up to date with the parallel efforts of Kasser and Charles Hedrick to translate and publicize the text. With Hedrick's permission van Rijn uploaded some of these early images and translations.

So in van Rijn's narration we start with the stolen and smuggled manuscript from Egypt, seen by Tchacos in 1982, which then makes its way to a safety-deposit box in New York. I am not a curator, but that may not be the best place for a manuscript of this sort. The orginal owner of the manuscript, Hanna, then reclaims it and tries to sell it again in 1990 until Tchacos eventually picks it up for $300,000. Her efforts then to sell it off to others brings it into Bruce Ferrini's orbit in 1999 and apparently later in 2001. Ferrini pops up in Henk Sutton's article on GJudas translated from the Dutch by van Rijn:

"Ferrini suspects that in the meantime several single pages of the manuscript were put on the market. 'When I saw the work for the first time in 1999, only 25 pages remained intact, so at least half of them were missing. I cannot be absolutely sure if the manuscript was found incomplete or if its writing was never finished. But from time to time new pages would appear. Five or six different documents in total without page numbers, it was just a mess.' Ferrini hesitated for a long time. He signed the deal, but then refrained from purchasing. 'Frieda and Roberty could not provide him with any clear indication about its origin. We didn't buy the manuscript, because we didn't buy their story.'"

This explanation at least provides a plausible excuse for Ferrini's "stalling" that Roberty records in the emails below. Eventually, the Maecenas Foundation (a nice way of saying "Tchacos and Roberty") turns to alternative solutions and with Kasser's efforts this find then becomes National Geographic's cashcow. As it turns out, Tchacos actually bought the manuscript from its original owner and not its subsequent smuggler who showed it to her the first time, good thing she didn't buy it back then. Because of this, I wonder if van Rijn's original indictment of her still stands. Unless I am missing something. And now the codex will soon be back in Egypt anyway.

The Emails

The story of Michel van Rijn's involvement with the GJudas "find" is colorfully illustrated by this series of emails between van Rijn and Roberty (an initial broker of the manuscript) back in Jan. 2001 that have been faithfully recorded by Pearse here. At this point in the story Tchacos is handing over the manuscripts to Ferrini for "safekeeping." They had already been stolen, smuggled, and stashed in a safety-deposit box in Hicksville, New York for almost 20 years.

It is interesting enough to read through the emails in toto, but the gist is as follows:

Email 2. Roberty begins by suggesting a modification to van Rijn's first story about Ferrini's sale of the GJudas manuscript and related leaves and fragments. This story catalogs the contents as one codex containing the lost Gospel of Judas, the First Apocalypse of James, and the Epistle of Peter to Philip. (Henceforth known as the Tchakos Codex.) Along with this codex is the Book of Exodus in Greek, Letters of Paul in Sahidic Coptic, and a Mathematical Treatise in Greek. Whether or not these are all contained in a second codex is not stated. The suggested piece characterizes Ferrini rather negatively:

"Last fall, Zurich based antiques dealer Frieda Chakos entrusts priceless papyrus manuscripts which had been in a Bank vault in New York for almost 20 years to the “safe” facilities of Akron/Ohio based manuscript dealer Bruce P. Ferrini. She is approached by Ferrini through a middleman and doesn’t have a clue that by this time Ferrini is already in deep financial troubles. The news had not hit the papers yet. Ferrini takes advantage of the secrecy of the art-market and offers to help Frieda ‘in preserving these manuscripts for the benefit [of] mankind’"

The original piece that inspired this email can be read here, and the actual deal mentioned in this email can be read here.

Email 4: Roberty checks in again, unhappy that van Rijn has made public what he could only have possibly learned through his secret network of antiquities spies:

"Your first paragraph reveals such information that obviously could only be fed in by my side and this could make negotiations starting tomorrow (i.e. today) even more difficult. On the other hand, this quite precise technical info is of little importance or impact to the public."

Van Rijn also posted the letter that entails "Charlie's contribution" as mentioned in the email. I bet this Charles Hill, "former head of New Scotland Yard Art & Antiques Squad," has a few cool stories to tell.

Email 5: Further vilification of Ferrini ensues as Roberty encounters complications in actually getting the cash for the sale from Ferrini. (It is still not clear why Ferrini was not forthcoming with the payment, there are three options: Ferrini didn't have the money. Ferrini was worried about the provenance. Ferrini was seeing what he could obtain and sell with only paying as little as possible.) Roberty claims:

The overdue payment has been done because of a confusion with dealings Bruce has with Bill Veres. Bill claims Bruce owing him money and pretends having paid Frieda on behalf on Bruce USD 90" (which is not true !) and Bruce claims Bill owing him lots of money. Bill had introduced Bruce to Frieda and pretends to be his partner. At the same time he pretends feeling responsible towards Frieda for the mess she is in. For reasons completely independent of Bruce, Bill owes Frieda about USD 150". All this confusion is basically bullshit and is being used by Bruce just to avoid payment. By the way, he pretends that the sales price obtained by Sam Fogg is not of USD 900" and that the sale was not to Thompson.

We know now though from Henk Schutten's article that Ferrini's hesitancy may be plausibly explained by van Rijn's original warning: "You buy? You touch? You will be prosecuted! And damned..." Which apparently is arts and antiquities dealer lingo for: "the provenance of this manuscript is uncertain." This was certainly why others didn't buy the manuscripts after previous offers.

The Point

All this is to say that that the National Geographic version of events seems to be fairly sanitized:

The codex, containing the Gospel of Judas, was discovered in the 1970s near El Minya, Egypt, and moved from Egypt to Europe to the United States. Once in the United States, it was kept in a safe-deposit box for 16 years on Long Island, New York, until antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos bought it in April 2000. After two unsuccessful resale attempts, Nussberger-Tchacos----alarmed by the codex's rapidly deteriorating state----transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001, for restoration and translation. The manuscript will be delivered to Egypt and housed in Cairo's Coptic Museum.

Several pages of the Gospel of Judas as well as pages from the other three texts in the codex will be on exhibit at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., beginning Friday, April 7, 2006, for a limited engagement. After Kasser and his team complete conserving and translating the manuscript, the codex will be given to Egypt, where it will be housed in Cairo's Coptic Museum.


While this version nicely ties up all the loose ends and cuts through some of the gaps left in van Rijn's thrilling reportage, it doesn't quite fit the facts. Or at least it fits the fewest, nicest facts possible. They would have been better served ditching the "this manuscript will revolutionize our understanding of early Christianity" angle and just publicizing its remarkable backstory. At least that way they could have sold the rights to the story to Universal.

UPDATE 4/14: National Geographic does have a version of the tangled story of the Tchacos Codex posted, and while it is an admirable attempt to spin what are otherwise much less saccharine facts, it still doesn't deal with the problems raised by the "van Rijn angle."

You can read much of this information from Artnews on R. Pearse's exhaustive page. I believe he is at work tracking down exactly what is happening with the other five texts that are related to the GJudas manuscript, more on that later. Any corrections on this post are invited and appreciated.

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