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My telephone rang. It was about 10:00 a.m. I remember the sun dappling the wall before me. It sparkled. It was the perfect day to be in an English country village.
"Can you get the next train to London? Don't ask why."
I groaned silently: wall-to-wall cars. Scarce taxis. Noise, pollution, crowded subways. A day spent either inside rooms or traveling between them, the sun a distant memory.
"Sure," I replied, knowing that my friend would never have made such a request unless it was important.
"And can you bring a camera with you?"
"Sure," I replied again, vaguely bemused.
"And can you hide the camera?"
Suddenly he had my attention. What was up? My friend was a member of a small and discreet group of international dealers, middlemen, and purchasers of high-value antiquities -- not all of which carried the required paperwork permitting them to be traded on the open market.
I put a camera and some lenses in a standard-looking briefcase, threw in plenty of film, and jumped in my car for the drive to the station.
I met my friend outside a restaurant in a famous London street. He was an American, and with him were two Palestinians, a Jordanian, a Saudi, and an English expert from a major auction house.
They were all expecting me, and after brief introductions the expert from the auction house departed, apparently not wishing to be involved in what was to happen. The rest of us walked to a nearby bank, where we were quickly led through the banking hall, along a short corridor, and into a small private room with frosted windows.
As we all stood around a table placed in the middle of the room, making desultory small talk, the bank officials carried in two wooden trunks and laid them down before us. Each trunk bore three padlocks. As the second was carried in, one of the officials said pointedly, as if "for the record": "We don't know what is in these trunks. We don't want to know what is in them."
They then brought a telephone into the room and departed, locking the door behind them.
The Jordanian made a telephone call to Amman. From the little conversation that ensued (which was in Arabic), I gathered that permission had been requested and obtained. The Jordanian then produced a set of keys and unlocked the trunks.
They were stuffed full of exact-fitting sheets of cardboard. And on each sheet, I was horrified to note, there were hundreds of pieces of papyrus text roughly fixed to the cardboard by small strips of clear adhesive tape. The texts were written in Aramaic or Hebrew. Accompanying them were Egyptian mummy wrappings inscribed in demotic -- the written form of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
I knew that it was common for such wrappings to bear sacred texts, and so the owners of this hoard must have unwrapped at least a mummy or two. The Aramaic or Hebrew texts looked, at first sight, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I had seen before, although they were mostly written on parchment. This collection was a treasure trove of ancient documents. I was very intrigued and increasingly desperate to let some scholars know about their existence, perhaps to secure access for them.
As the cardboard sheets were removed from the trunks, I was told that the owners were trying to sell the documents to an unspecified European government. The price asked was £3 million (approximately $5.6 million). Those present wanted me to take a representative selection of photographs that could be shown to the prospective buyer in order to move the sale one stage further toward a successful conclusion. I then realized which government was the most likely to be interested. But I kept my thoughts to myself.
Over the next hour or so, as the trunks were emptied, certain pages were pointed out to me, and standing on a chair, by the soft light filtering through the frosted windows, I took black-and-white photographs. In all, I shot six rolls of thirty-five-millimeter film -- over two hundred photographs.
But I was becoming increasingly anxious that these documents might simply vanish into the limbo from which they had emerged. That they might be bought by some purchaser who would sit on them for many years, as had happened with the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Or worse, I feared that without a purchaser, they might simply disappear back into the deepest, darkest recesses of the bank, joining the many other valuable documents known to be locked away in safe-deposit boxes and trunks around the world.
It seemed likely that since I had taken a lot of photographs, and since no one would be counting, I would be able to hide at least one of the rolls of film so that there might be at least some proof that this collection even existed. I successfully slipped one into a pocket.
When the photography was finished and the cardboard sheets were being placed back into the trunks, I gave a handful of exposed film rolls to one of the owners. He looked down at them.
"Where is the other film?" he said immediately. He had been counting.
"Other film?" I said lamely, trying to present an image of abstracted innocence while ostentatiously patting my pockets.
"Oh. You're right. Here it is." I produced the film I was hoping to keep. I was irritated and rather depressed. I really wanted to have some proof of what I had seen.
At that point my friend realized what I was up to and, in an inspired move, came to the rescue.
"Where are you getting these films developed?" he asked innocently.
"At a photographic shop," replied the man holding my film.
"That's not very secure," said my friend. "Look, Michael was a professional photographer, and he could do all the developing and print you off as many sets as you need. That way there is no risk."
The foregoing is excerpted from The Jesus Papers by Michael Baigent. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022