War of words erupts over sale of ancient texts

The Bodmer Foundation brought the "Judas Gospel" to public attention Keystone

Plans by a Geneva museum to sell two ancient manuscripts for millions of dollars have drawn consternation from scholars around the world.

This content was published on October 28, 2006 - 10:10

They fear the sale of the papyri, which date back to the 2nd century, could precipitate the break-up of a unique collection of around 50 texts held by the Bodmer Foundation.

The Bodmer, based in Cologny just outside the city, says it needs to raise money to guarantee the long-term future of its museum, which opened only three years ago.

But around 20 academics from Switzerland and abroad are calling for the sale of two manuscripts – gospels of St John and St Luke – to be halted.

According to Paul Schubert, professor of ancient Greek at Geneva University, the collection to which the texts belong is one of the most extensive and valuable of its kind in the world.

He says it contains New Testament codices, other Christian texts and three comedies by the Greek playwright Menander, which were all found together.

"One of the jewels of the [Bodmer] collection is this set of ancient books from the second to fourth century AD that all belong together," Schubert told swissinfo. "It is the same as if the British Museum decided to sell one panel from the Parthenon frieze."


The professor, who is a specialist in ancient papyri, said colleagues both at home and abroad were also concerned about the "hushed" way in which the sale was being conducted.

He said they only got wind of it after an academic tipped them off earlier this year that Yale University in the United States was being lined up as a possible buyer.

"We don't know to whom they want to sell; we don't really know what they want to do with the money. Is it really to pay for the museum or to buy other things?" said Schubert.

"We are just trying to draw attention to the fact that something has to be done. Selling the prize assets to keep an institution running is not the right way to do it. They are just shooting themselves in the foot," he added.

The Geneva University professor suggested that the museum would be better off selling items of which they had two copies, adding that he hoped the cantonal government might be persuaded to intervene.

Raise capital

The reaction from the academic community has infuriated Jean Bonna, chairman of the foundation's board, who insists the body is acting in the best interests of the museum.

Bonna explained that the foundation urgently needed to raise capital to help cover the organisation's annual running costs of SFr1.8 million ($1.4 million).

He added that the foundation hoped to make around $9 million from the sale of the papyri, which he stressed had already been published in their entirety. The transaction has yet to be completed.

"We always knew that the [foundation's] capital would be insufficient to run this museum, and ever since we opened the museum we have been discussing what to sell," he said.

"It's a responsible choice we have made after much reflection and taking all the interests into consideration," he added.

Bonna pointed out that the manuscripts would be going to a museum, university or major library in Europe or America where they would still be accessible to researchers.

"The by-laws of the foundation are extremely clear: they allow us – if we need the foundation to survive, which is the case – to sell anything from the foundation," he said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

Bodmer Foundation, which was set up by academic and collector Martin Bodmer in 1971, holds a collection of more than 150,000 manuscripts and books, dating from antiquity to modern times.

Its museum, designed by Ticino architect Mario Botta, is open to the public and its permanent exhibition is supplemented by four temporary exhibitions each year.

The foundation is subsidised by canton Geneva (SFr500,000 a year), the commune of Cologny and private donations.

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