Papyrologist (and friend) Roberta Mazza has done a tremendous job at her blog of tracking some of the latest news in the extraction of textual papyri, the market for them, and who collects them and why.
In reading her latest post on the Wyman Fragment, I was particularly interested in her points about the factors which influence the prices of papyrus fragments. Naturally the content of the papyrus itself can drive up the value–we can presume the new and controversial Sappho fragments would be insured for more than just your average ancient Egyptian warehouse inventory. Having a clear and legal provenance can increase the economic value of any artifact, not just a papyrus fragment, as both individual collectors and institutions are (slowly) becoming more wary of looted or otherwise “sketchy” pieces. In other words, conscientious collectors will pay a premium to avoid legal action in the future. Sheer competition among buyers influence the cost of any commodity–be it ancient texts or modern real estate. The rarity or non-renewable-resource status of antiquities also drives up price.
One thing that struck me about Mazza’s analysis is that the value of papyri as “collectibles” today is sometimes determined by the same criteria which made objects collectible in antiquity. Here are some examples from the Roman world:
Provenance: While in modern antiquities collecting, provenance is part of the determination of legal/illicit status (with higher prices for licit pieces), in the ancient world, provenance referred to the ownership history, with objects being more valuable if they had passed through the hands of someone important.
Example: Martial Ep. IX.43 tells us of the Hercules Epitrapezios, once owned by both Alexander the Great and Hannibal before it came into Vindex’s collection. While Statius (Silvae IV.6) seems to like the little statuette on its artistic merits, its ownership history was the big draw.
Name brands: Like Louis Vuitton handbags or Hummel figurines, sometimes a well-known brand is all an object needs to make it valuable (regardless of formal characteristics in some cases). A fragment of Sappho is more valuable than an entire poem written on papyrus by a nobody.
Example: Juvenal Satire 8.100-104 gives us a nice list of the collectible brands of his day, including great Greek masters like Parrhasius, Myron, and Phidias, as well as Coan silk. Anything “Greek” in nature was probably collectible, even if it couldn’t be associated with a famous name. The acclaim of Tyrian purple is well-known and dates to Homer and likely earlier. Corinthian bronze is a famous “brand” of ancient metalwork, known among connoisseurs and poseurs alike. You can contrast Pliny the Younger’s knowledge of it in Ep. III.6 with Trimalchio’s absurd explanation of his Corinthian bronze at Satyricon 50: “Yeah, I get my bronze from a guy down the way named Corinthus.”
Mirabilia: This is something of a combination of name brand, provenance, and natural history. In some cases a single object could “triple-down” on its valuable features.
Example: Pausanias 8, 46 tells us of the tusks of the Calydonian Boar brought from Tegea to Rome by Augustus as war booty after the defeat of Mark Anthony. We presume the tusks were big and impressive to match their illustrious and mythological provenance. Aemilius Scaurus displayed a gigantic skeleton (of a whale?), which was said to be the sea monster which menaced Andromeda.
While status as mirabilia doesn’t necessarily influence the economic value of papyri today, provenance and name brand certainly do. And in the modern market for antiquities, we can see clearly these factors at work in auction prices. For example, the connection to Lorenzo the Magnificent must have been in part responsible for the $3.4-million hammer price for this fragmentary group of satyrs fighting snakes. The piece’s ancient Roman “brand,” as well as its allusion to a Laocoon-like prototype certainly drove up the value as well.