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A gospel's rocky path from Egypt's desert to print

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Though ancient writing was once a bargain compared to art, Professor Gerstenblith says, prices are climbing as a growing pool of middle-class collectors smells an opportunity to make a profit. In this climate, libraries with potentially valuable pieces have in the past decade experienced what she terms a "rash" of thievery. Example: in August 2005, a map dealer got arrested for trying to sneak a pilfered page out of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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Other fields with similar quandaries are actively raising their ethical standards in the wake of demands by Italy and Peru this past year that pieces held in American institutions be returned. Last week, the American Association of Museum Directors issued guidelines saying museums shouldn't borrow or lend pieces known to have been stolen or unlawfully moved after 1970, when international standards took effect. But the American Institute of Archaeology faulted those directors for not going far enough in their guidelines to defend against future looting.

By contrast, the American Philological Association (APA), whose 3,000 members study ancient Greek and Roman texts, doesn't address acquisitions issues in its ethics policy, last updated in 1989.

If host nations "want no one to read [an ancient manuscript], that's wrong," says APA Executive Director Adam Blistein. "The world's entitled to know. You want to understand cultures as much as you can, and that means disclosure."

But some researchers say emphasis on disclosure is short-sighted. The dissemination of inadequately documented contents makes scholars increasingly vulnerable to forgeries and threatens to undermine archaeology, says Christopher Rollston, a Semitic studies expert at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn. "It is indubitable that collecting precipitates illicit pillaging of archaeological sites," Dr. Rollston says.

Custodians of rare books and epigraphy wonder if the high-profile case might be a sign of a dawning era of new acquisition standards in their field. One example: libraries with books tracing to Soviet or Nazi incursions increasingly must defend the legitimacy of their ownership.

"All of this is a series of attitudes [toward ownership] that are really very, very recent" and still developing in case law, says Daniel Traister, curator of the Annenberg Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania. "In [the art] field, we're used to it. In books and manuscripts, it's still somewhat new."

Collectors and scholars of written material are apt to keep resisting for a while, Gerstenblith says. The reason: their fields have traditionally emphasized the universal value of writings, whereas other archaeological finds are understood to be virtually meaningless when divorced from their place of origin. But as disciplines collaborate, she suggests, those with the most demanding ethical standards will influence the others.

"To say, 'I can study this [written material]. I don't care that it was looted' is an attitude that will become the dinosaur, and it will change," Gerstenblith says. "They're definitely behind where the archaeologists are, and that's going to take time" to close the gap.