Private collectors destroy artifacts with avarice

Betrayer or loyal disciple? This question has been on the minds of devoted and doubtful Christians alike for ages. The recent emergence of the Gospel of Judas raises several questions about Judas’ role in Jesus’

Betrayer or loyal disciple? This question has been on the minds of devoted and doubtful Christians alike for ages. The recent emergence of the Gospel of Judas raises several questions about Judas’ role in Jesus’ crucifixion. The new gospel claims that Judas was asked by Jesus to betray him.

Though no one questions the legitimacy of the document, scholars and archeologists have raised concern about the potentially negative affect commercial dealers have on ancient artifacts.

According to the New York Times, farmers found the text in an Egyptian cave in the 1970s. After that, the Gospel passed through countless European and American dealers and collectors. Recently, Frieda Tchacos Nussberger, a Swiss art dealer, sold the text to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art. With the financial backing of National Geographic, the document was able to be translated and the findings publicized.

Nussberger is said to gain $1 million to $2 million. According to the New York Times, Nussberger turned to the foundation only after the private market was unwilling to pay such an amount. Archeologists argue that private dealers, such as Nussberger, are only looking to gain profit, even at detriment to the artifact.

This problem is not only relegated to ancient documents. Published in a May 2005 issue of National Geographic, a story entitled “Fossil Wars” described the battle over fossils between commercial dealers, scientists and governments across the world. The major argument is that the scientific significance of fossils is lost by commercial dealers who are only looking to profit.

Since the 1980s the private demand for fossils has become huge, spurring commercial dealers to dig for fossils on public lands, selling them for millions. In some poorer countries, like Morocco and China, peasants make a living from fossils found on their land, which are sold to dealers, who sell the fossils to the highest bidder.

Museums have a hard time competing with private collectors, who pay millions for an intact dinosaur or mammoth. For example, in 1997 the Chicago Field Museum needed generous backing from McDonald’s Corp. and Walt Disney Co. to buy a Tyrannosaurus rex for $8.36 million.

Commercial dealers argue that not all collectors are inconsiderate of the scientific and historic data, and they often uncover new discoveries. Furthermore, museum collections are often donated by private collectors.

However, it is hard to dismiss the potential damage that can occur at the hand of dealers and collectors. In the case of the Gospel of Judas, the discovery is extremely significant, historically and theologically. If the text had never been sold to a foundation committed to protecting such a document, it would still be lost to society. Though commercial dealers often fuel the quest for artifacts and fossils, new laws must be enacted to ensure their protection.

Private collectors’ backgrounds, and even intentions, should be checked before being allowed to purchase important finds. Dealers should be required to collect certain scientific or historic information during the excavation process. Museums should provide incentives for commercial dealers to sell to a museum. Publicity, as an incentive, would allow museums’ benefactors to financially and scientifically help commercial dealers.

Of course, a myriad of problems exist with these solutions. Already, bribes to custom officials and government agencies, as well as black markets, are nearly impossible to document and stop. Excavations often occur in inhabitable land, such as jungles and deserts, and few officials are around to monitor the process. In Third World countries, the task would be even harder. Governments have little authority on peasants’ land where many fossils exist. Third World governments also lack the resources to enforce any kind of rules.

Though more restrictions and monitoring could help curb the destruction of the significance of artifacts and fossils, the task may be too great for most governments to handle. For now we can only have faith – in the decency of commercial dealers and private collectors.

Morgan Ashenfelter can be reached at

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