email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Gospel of Judas
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One of Emmel’s colleagues disappeared into the bathroom to negotiate a deal. Emmel was authorized to offer no more than $50,000; the sellers demanded three million dollars and not a penny less. "No way was anyone going to pay that money," says Emmel, now a professor at the University of Münster in Germany, who sadly recalls the papyrus as “beautiful” and laments its deterioration since the meeting. While the two sides lunched, he slipped away and frantically noted down everything he could remember. That was the last any scholar saw of the documents for the next 17 years.

According to the present owners of the Judas gospel, the Egyptian in that Geneva hotel room was a Cairo antiquities dealer named Hanna. He had bought the manuscript from a village trader who made his living scouting such material. Exactly where or how the trader had come across the collection is unclear. He is dead now, and his relatives in the Maghagha district, a hundred miles (160 kilometers) south of Cairo, become strangely reticent when challenged to reveal the site of the find.

Soon after Hanna acquired the manuscript and before he could take it overseas, his entire stock disappeared in a robbery. In Hanna's telling, the stolen goods were spirited out of the country and ended up in the hands of another dealer. Later Hanna succeeded in retrieving part of the hoard, including the gospel.

Once upon a time, few would question how a priceless antiquity left its host country. Any visitor could simply pick up artifacts and send them abroad. That is how great museums like the British Museum and the Louvre acquired many of their treasures. Today, antiquities-rich nations take a more proprietary attitude, banning private ownership and strictly controlling the export of their heritage. Respectable buyers such as museums try to ensure a legitimate provenance, or origin, for an artifact by establishing that it has not been stolen or illegally exported.

In early 1980, when the theft took place, Egypt had already made it illegal to possess unregistered antiquities or export them without a government license. It is not clear precisely how this law applies to the codex. But questions about its provenance have shadowed it ever since.

Hanna, however, was determined to get top dollar for it. The academics in Geneva confirmed through their excitement that it was indeed valuable, so he headed for New York to find a buyer with real money. The foray came to nothing, whereupon Hanna apparently lost heart and retired back to Cairo. Before he left New York, he rented a safe deposit box in a Citibank branch in Hicksville, Long Island, where he parked the codex and some other ancient papyri. There they remained, untouched and moldering, while Hanna intermittently tried to interest other buyers. His price, reportedly, was always too high.

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