by Geoffrey Clarfield (May 2010)
You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere…Everybody has something to conceal.
–Humphrey Bogart, as Detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, 1941
This is the story of the discovery and recovery of the lost “Gospel of Judas” by the National Geographic Society. It starts off in Egypt but it quickly becomes a Swiss-American mystery. It is a heroic tale, a real cliffhanger; pure Hollywood, worthy of a film starring Humphrey Bogart or Harrison Ford. The manuscript of the Gospel of Judas is now under the expert care and protection of the Society and its institutional partner in Switzerland, the Maecenas Foundation under its president, the Swiss lawyer, Mario Roberty. The good guys have won and once again civilization has been saved. Or has it?
The Society is conserving the document for all humankind and it is now, miraculously, once again part of our common cultural heritage. It is a triumph of the Protestant Ethic, a real National Treasure. The Society has even promised to repatriate the manuscript to Egypt, once it has been properly and definitively edited. You can read all about it in the New York Times bestseller, The Lost Gospels-The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot by Herbert Krosney (published by the National Geographic, Washington DC, 2006.) This book explains how they did it. Here is their story and as Lowell Thomas once said many years ago, I really want to retell it.
Once upon a time in the land of Egypt there was a poor Coptic Christian peasant who could neither read nor write. Wandering in the desert wilderness one afternoon outside his village he found ancient manuscripts in codex (book) form. Although the poor farmer was unable to decipher the contents of the manuscripts, he knew that he might sell them for a tidy sum on the regional illegal antiquities market.
A local Coptic broker named Am Samia bought the manuscript and sold it to another co-religionist, a Cairo based Coptic antiquities dealer named Hannah. In Cairo a self-interested Italian ancient manuscript expert named Manfredi, explained to Hannah that the manuscript might be worth millions of dollars.
From that moment on, Hannah had entered a different world. He now left behind his trusted Coptic co-religionists and the local antiquities market. Instead, he decided to enter the confusing and dangerous world of the European and international antiquities trade. It is comprised of a network of smugglers, forgers, middlemen and women, formal and informal brokers, art dealers, art historians, archaeologists, Museum curators, scholars and institutions of higher learning.
Some of these “players” desire fortune while some only desire fame. Only a very few are dedicated to saving priceless ancient treasures for the common good. Compared to the rest they have the least power and resources to bring to bear in the saving and retrieval of antique manuscripts.
A wealthy Swiss based Greek speaking Cretan antiquities dealer named Koutolakis, heard that a marvelous bunch of manuscripts was on sale in Cairo. He sent one of his glamorous female assistants to Cairo to find out about them. She visited Hannah and agreed to buy everything he had in stock, including the manuscripts. Hannah was overjoyed and dreamed of retiring early with his imagined millions. The next day his apartment was robbed. Everything had been taken. None of it had been legal. None of it had been insured and the Egyptian authorities could therefore do nothing.
Hannah suspected that Koutolakis was the man behind the robbery. Through a self-interested Greek middleman named John Perdios, he opened negotiations with Koutolakis to get back his manuscripts and artifacts. Koutolakis eventually returned the manuscripts but kept some of the stolen artifacts in a deal that suggests that there is some honor among some thieves. However, it appears that Hannah had threatened Koutalakis with violence if he ever set foot again in Cairo. By then Hannah realized that to sell the manuscripts to Europeans or North Americans he needed scholars to authenticate his find.
Perdios took some photographs of parts of the manuscripts, which were sent to academics that specialize in the decipherment, translation of, and interpretation of early Coptic writings. The pictures resembled early Christian manuscripts discovered in Egypt after WWII at the site of Nag Hammadi, and which have included Christian texts banned or ignored by the early Church fathers and that did not become part of the New Testament.
As these manuscripts have reached the wider public, they have changed the ways in which we understand the development and the diversity that was once early Christianity. At the same time, they have contributed to a theological reinterpretation of some aspects of Christian thought, which until now have been treated as “Gospel” by millions of believing Christians.
Professor James Robinson is one of the world’s leading academic experts on Coptic Christian writings. In the early 1980s Perdios contacted him. He saw the photos of the fragments and sent his student Stephen Emmel to Switzerland as part of a team of scholars who hoped to buy the manuscripts from Hannah. The team was given no more than a few minutes to examine the material. Hannah and Perdios demanded millions and the scholars offered thousands. The deal was off. Here is a quote from Emmel’s memo of June 1, 1983:
The codex contains…a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples…Judas…this Gnostic codex…is of the utmost scholarly value…comparable to any one of the Nag Hammadi codexes…there is great danger of further deterioration…as long as it is in the hands of the present owner…
In 1984 Hannah brought the manuscripts to the United States. With help from his coreligionists in the Coptic community of New Jersey he put the manuscript in a safety deposit box in a Long Island bank. In that humid drawer the manuscript further deteriorated as he patiently awaited a buyer who would hopefully give him his millions.
Perdios had also sent photos of the fragments to a Greek speaking Swiss based antiquities dealer, Frieda Tchakos Nussberger. Not surprisingly Frieda is a friend and colleague of Daphne Koutolakis who inherited her father’s business after his death. In 1999 Frieda got a call from someone in Greece explaining that some pages of these manuscripts were up for sale.
She went to Greece and bought the pages from a woman who may have been none other than the late Koutolakis’ glamorous assistant who may have stolen the pages from Hannah many years ago in Cairo. By this time it had become clear in both the scholarly and antiquities dealer communities that this manuscript was special and may really be worth the millions that Hannah had been asking for it. Perhaps more.
Frieda then contacts Hannah. By this time Hannah has begun to despair of ever selling the manuscript and agrees to sell it to Frieda for far less than the millions he once wanted. He flies to New York. She meets him there. He retrieves the now disintegrated manuscript from the vault. Frieda gets the manuscript, wires him the money and he flies home to Cairo. She takes it to Yale University where bona fide colleagues of Professor Robinson finally get a good look at it. They explain to her that one of the codexes has the name Judas all over it and that it may be a unique early Christian manuscript or Gospel. Frieda offers the manuscript for sale to Yale University for more than half a million dollars. Despite its authenticity they refuse to buy it.
She then turned around and sold what was left of the manuscripts to an American antiquities dealer, Bruce Ferrini. She handed them over to him and received two post-dated cheques for 2.5 million dollars. She did not need to ask for a receipt. He then stored the manuscript in his freezer. (Frieda has always insisted that she has been on a semi religious quest to save the manuscript of the Gospel of Judas. She has said that, “Judas chose me to rehabilitate him…He was leading me, pulling the strings to put me on the right path…It was as if Judas was fighting on my side trying to protect me from the blows, resolving the problems as they arose, leading me through the labyrinth to the final salvation.” )
Ferrini did not have the money in his account. His checks bounced and Ferrini and Tchakos called in their lawyers. It was not an open and shut case as for the first time in this story, Ferrini’s American lawyer politely informed Frieda’s Swiss lawyer, Mario Roberty, that the manuscripts had probably been stolen and smuggled into the U.S. (Perhaps that is why Yale University politely declined the earlier offer to buy them.)
Nevertheless, as Krosney tells it, they managed to reach a settlement. Ferrini kept some of the non-Judas manuscripts and gave back the Judas document to Frieda. Sometime during this period Roberty transferred ownership of Frieda’s manuscript to a Swiss conservation foundation (Maecenas) that he had created to conserve archaeological artifacts. According to Krosney they then put the manuscript in a box and flew with it back to Switzerland. Soon after fragments of the manuscript turned up in New York. Had Ferrini given everything back, or like Koutolakis’ mysterious female assistant, had he also done a little cutting and pasting before returning the manuscript?
In 2004 Rodolphe Kasser, a scholar of Coptic studies announced at an international conference that he had possession of the Gospel of Judas manuscript in Switzerland and that he would conserve, transcribe and translate the document. He then put together a team of scholars who all signed non-disclosure contracts preventing them from speaking and writing freely until the edition was published.
Apparently, the working arrangement is based on a partnership between National Geographic and Mario Roberty’s conservation organization (Maecenas) with the active participation of Frieda Tchakos Neussberger. Krosney’s book portrays them in glowing terms and describes Tchakos and Roberty’s desire to save the manuscript as a kind of religious quest for personal salvation.
I have just summarized Krosney’s book. For those who do not have the patience to read it you can watch the National Geographic DVD version called The Lost Gospel of Judas and which along with the book was released with great fanfare just before Easter 2006, a few weeks before the film version of the Da Vinci Code, quite the marketing feat.
However, now that you have the bare bones of the story you may really feel like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon, playing the character of the private detective Sam Spade, pacing his office and asking the following questions, primarily about the remarkable behaviour of Krosney’s hero, the handsome Mrs. Frieda Tchakos Nussberger and then asking some more about the Society who is her partner.
If she was so desperate to save the Gospel of Judas for posterity why did she not act earlier? As a world-renowned antiquities dealer why did she sell it to a shady antiquities dealer from Ohio who double-crossed her for a quick 2.5 million dollars, which did not exist? As someone who was dedicated to saving the manuscripts and with her wide connections in Egypt, Switzerland and America why did she not put together a secret consortium of buyers to save the text? As the text had been smuggled into the U.S. from Egypt why did she take it on the plane back to Switzerland with Roberty and apparently smuggle it back into Switzerland?
Throughout this whole ordeal why did the National Geographic not inform the US government that it believed that the document was stolen property smuggled into the country? What sort of deal has Roberty and Tchakos worked out with National Geographic and is she going to make any substantial sums from the partnership? Why was a muzzle put on the scholars who are working on it? Has the ostensibly not for profit National Geographic gone into the business of cutting out other bona fide scholars from a major find? By doing so, do they also stand to make millions of dollars? If an American based scholar wanted to now make his own translation would they allow him to do so and publish it or would they sue him, claiming that they now have copyrighted an early Christian text? In order to begin to answer these questions just like Sam Spade, I made a phone call.
“Hello this is Jim Robinson, can I help you?” I am on the phone with Professor James Robinson and I ask him all of these questions and then some. He recommended that I read again his fully updated and revised book called The Secrets of Judas -The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel. He also asked me to look carefully at Peter Watson’s book on the illegal antiquities trade aptly titled The Medici Conspiracy a recent expose of the exponential and globalized trade in illegal antiquities. It tells us a little more about Frieda Nussberger Tchakos than do the people at National Geographic. After reading these two books we may confidently deduce that Tchacos’ motivations have been less than spiritual.
Watson writes that for many years Walter Guarani was a tombarolo, an Italian word for tomb robber. He made his living selling illegally excavated artifacts up the chain of command and which often ended in the hands of Swiss antiquities dealers, or to put it more politely, antiquities dealers based in Switzerland. In March 1999 the Public Prosecutor of Italy in an ongoing inquiry called Operation Geryon interrogated him. He gave the prosecutor a list of names of tomb robbers, especially from Naples and Rome and explained that much of their material ended up in the hands of Frieda Tchacos.
Tchacos was later interviewed by the Italian authorities who promised to deal leniently with her if she gave them a detailed memoir of the social organization of the illegal trade in antiquities out of Italy and into Switzerland. She did not and thinking that the authorities would not act against her, she flew to Cyprus to visit her brother. However, the Cypriot authorities arrested her and asked for the Italian prosecutor (Signor Ferri) to come and interview her. He found her quite forthcoming about the illegal antiquities deals that she had been involved with. They cut a deal with one another, the illegal antiquities dealer and the prosecutor.
Robinson quotes Watson:
Ferri’s instincts about Tchacos’ mood in Limassol were correct…He said charges would be confined to offenses that carried penalties of two years or less (with a good chance that the prison terms would be suspended)…Frieda Tchacos agreed to this deal and September 17, 2002, she was convicted of handling stolen and smuggled goods, and of failing to notify the authorities of the antiquities that came her way. She was given one year and six months’ imprisonment, suspended and fined 1,000 Euros.
In a Los Angeles Times article of April 13, 2006 Signor Ferri spoke to the press candidly about Tchakos:
“In the past she was at the center of the looting in Italy” said Paolo Ferri, the Italian State Prosecutor who has led an investigation of the illicit trade for 10 years.
Far away in Scandinavia lives a Swedish researcher named Staffan Lunden. In the abstract to his article called “The Scholar and the Market” he writes:
The Swedish market in archaeological objects is dominated by recently looted objects. Often the dealers and collectors are personally involved in the sleazy activities through which the objects reach the market.
In the body of the report he tells us that:
Throughout its history …the Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities…has acquired objects on the art market to enrich its collections, through the financial support of various generous private benefactors…The main suppliers were Galerie Arete and Galerie Nefer…a few of the objects acquired by the museum …came from “old collections”…but the majority are not…it seems much more probable that they have been clandestinely excavated not long before they appeared on the market.
When I read this report I noted that the Galerie Nefer was owned by Frieda Tchacos Nussberger. But perhaps the most amusing piece of news is a more recent item that was run by the Daily News of Egypt on 2/1/2007. It should be clearly stated that Frieda Nussberger Tchakos is not guilty of this reported alleged crime.
Greek police have arrested a woman suspected of antiquity smuggling after discovering a hoard of over 100 Greek and Egyptian objects in houses owned by her and her two sons, police said Thursday…Among the items discovered in an alabaster vessel topped with the likeness of Horus, the falcon headed ancient Egyptian sky god…Police identified the woman as Parisatis Tsakos, sister to the Zurich-based antiquities dealer Frida Tchacos Nussberger.
When I shared this with Dr. Robinson he laughed on the phone and gently remarked:
Tchakos and her lawyer Roberty have really conned the National Geographic Society. You see, the Maecenas Foundation who now owns the Gospel of Judas manuscript is what lawyers call a “corporate person.” If you or any government wants to sue them for possession of this stolen and smuggled item you sue the Foundation and get bogged down in court with them for as long as their pockets are deep. Furthermore they have cut a deal which allows them shares of the royalties for publishing and publicizing the documents which mean to some degree they still have exclusive rights to the manuscript. You may find this one hard to believe but it is true. When my publisher Harper San Francisco, communicated with National Geographic explaining to them that I wanted to make an alternative translation based on their text for the updated edition of my book this is what they wrote to my lawyers:
“The transcription is not simply a transcription of the legible Coptic words on the papyrus, but the result of restoration and interpretation based on the scholarly work of restoration…it is a copyrighted work…commissioned by the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art…It would be a violation of the copyright for a person or publisher to publish a translation of the transcription.”
Professor Robinson explained to me that in all likelihood Roberty and Frieda Tchacos Neussberger have cut a deal with National Geographic that allows sharing in the royalties of the books and films that are still so much the exclusive publishing rights of the Society. He laughed and told me that she had gone into business with her own lawyer and that my recent purchase of Krosney’s book had probably caused her at least a fifty cent profit, but he could not be sure.
It is worth adding that on April 13, 2006 the New York Times reported that, “Frieda Tchakos Neussberger stands to gain $1 million to $2 million from those National Geographic projects, her lawyer said.”
In the meantime, on March 21, 2008 that old former client of Tchakos, Bruce Ferrini had gone broke and the state was auctioning off his possessions. The Plain Dealer of Cleveland mentioned something curious in its article covering the auction, “Other rarities withheld from the auction include…papyrus fragments of the Gospel of Judas” And where might they be now?
If by now you are thinking that all antiquities dealers are crooked you are wrong. Many of them are highly educated, erudite people who recognize that the market and the Museum must accommodate each other according to changing conditions. There is even discussion from the Museum side of putting some of the multiple copies of artifacts on sale given that they spend most of their time in Museum basements, inaccessible to the public. When some galleries discover that they have artifacts that deserve repatriation they do so, as has been the recent case of Royal Athena Galleries in New York.
This then is the story so far, the official version of National Geographic plus the alternative versions of Professor Robinson, augmented by a growing number of writers, researchers and journalists who are appalled by the ravages of the illegal antiquities trade. A number of points just seem to jump out of the whole mess.
The manuscript was illegally excavated by peasants, illegally sold to an antiquities dealer in Cairo, stolen from him, negotiated back from those who stole it from him, smuggled into the U.S. with the help of Church authorities in New Jersey, illegally sold to Frieda Tchakos Neussberger who then sold it to another antiquities dealer, with no documentation or receipt (is that legal?). He then did not pay her. They engaged in legal proceedings against each other. One of the lawyers reminded the other lawyer (Roberty) that they were most likely negotiating over stolen goods. Despite that, they cut a deal.
Frieda then split the ownership of the document with her Swiss lawyer. Some say that she sold it to him for a million dollars. They cut a deal for exclusive publication of the manuscript with National Geographic, they apparently took it back to Switzerland by plane. They soon after hired a number of internationally renowned Coptic scholars including a former student of Professor Robinson, Martin Meyer. Any scholar working on it had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (a major self-inflicted violation of academic freedom).
Krosney does not mention how they took the manuscript out of the United States. Was it in their hand luggage? Was it registered at the New York airport as one ”stolen manuscript, belonging to the government of Egypt, valued at 2.5 million dollars?” Was it declared at customs? Isn’t this the kind thing that National Geographic should tell its members or, is it a secret?
Tchakos has always claimed that she wanted to save the document but with each transaction there seemed to be less and less of it left. As the manuscript was mistreated by her (she took it by plane to Akron Ohio where it was taken from her by the flight attendant and put in the luggage compartment where it was handled like any other baggage) her profit margins have increased as indeed, has the value of the manuscript increased with almost every added illegal action.
To top it all off, National Geographic has politely threatened Professor Robinson and prevented him from giving the general public an alternative translation of the Gospel of Judas. All this time the Society has been convinced that Tchakos has been on a religious quest. Excuse me, but is it now time for the readers to cancel their subscriptions to that all American institution?
The facts are clear and it seems that parties to the crime have “got away with it” but the question remains how. The answer comes from anthropology, not archaeology. We must take a look at the ethnicity of the players and how they comprise what anthropologists of the Near East call “the ethnic division of labour.”
Shortly after Alexander’s conquest of Egypt over 300,000 Greek-speaking Macedonians and other Hellenes settled in Egypt. They dominated the local Egyptian speaking natives for centuries and lived as a class apart, although the longer they stayed the more local customs they adopted until Cleopatra the last Greek Queen of Egypt built temples in the Egyptian style and followed the local ceremonies. Even under the Romans, Greeks dominated Egypt and they were instrumental in the spread of Christianity which was adopted by the Egyptians who as Christians, now called themselves Copts.
Even with the coming of the Muslims, Greeks continued to live in Egypt until 1956 when in a fit of Arab Nationalism and socialism President Nasser called for the nationalization of the economy tens of thousands of Alexandrian Greeks quit Egypt. Until then they had felt as Egyptian as anyone else despite their Orthodox Christianity, their Greek language and their French education.
For centuries Greeks have been the commercial brokers of much of the eastern Mediterranean, exchanging the riches of Egypt for the imports of Europe. Frieda Tchakos Neussberger is an Alexandrian Greek, born in Egypt, educated in French, trained in France and who set up shop in Switzerland. She had and has all the natural and cultural skills needed to cross the multiple ethnic barriers that characterize the trade in illegal antiquities out of Egypt.
It is an ethnic ladder of illegality which works rather effectively. First there are the peasants, Muslim and Christian who sell to the local townsmen who act as scouts for the city based Coptic and other dealers. As they have been raised in Egypt it is Greeks like Tchakos and Perdios who act as the middlemen. Greeks are welcome in Europe and are seen by other Europeans as “Western.” Unlike Europeans, Arabic speaking Greeks are often welcome in the Arab world and are sometimes even thought of as Arabs. Unlike Arabs or Copts, they have easy access to Europeans and neutral Switzerland has provided them with a safe haven for smuggling for years. They are the real Byzantines.
In Western Europe there are markets, museums, visiting American curators and art collectors and a growing number of private collectors. For their part the non Greek Europeans and Americans have a fear of doing business in the Arab world. Few of them speak Arabic. Few of them have any family based there and, few of them have experience of a society which is based on a hierarchy of patron client relationships lubricated by gifts and bribes -“bakhsheesh.”
Artifacts and money go up and down these hierarchies. Everyone gets a cut. Those closest to the source get less and those closest to the market get most. As Professor Robinson told me, “For an Alexandrian Greek, the fastest way to riches has always been the illegal antiquities trade.” This is how Frieda Neussberger and many others like her have made their fortunes. These dealers are not on religious quests. The governments of Europe and especially Italy are now dedicated to breaking up these rings.
These interethnic networks are based on extended family connections, patron client relations across ethnic groups and across national borders where each border crossing implies a jump in price. It is just like the drug trade. As one Colombian warlord once put it, “It is a matter of consumption not production.” If non-profit societies like National Geographic would refuse to deal with illegal antiquities dealers and when approached by the likes of Frieda, instead of doing business with them, they called in the law as the Italians are doing, our Museums would have better exhibits that would cost much less. Archaeologists would also be a lot happier.
Sadly, had someone called the cops early in the game we would have had a lot more of the Gospel of Judas than we now possess. And, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought of copyrighting a piece of the Bible. In the end, Sam Spade is just as fictional as the Maltese falcon but the Gospel of Judas, well, that is real. It really is the “stuff that dreams are made of.”
Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.
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