This article discusses key-questions related with the acquisition, circulation and publication of papyri from the late 19th century to the present. Following the vicissitudes of a famous Biblical papyrus (P 39) from its finding to the present location in a private collection, the author argues that current legislation on the circulation of manuscripts through the market seems insufficient to ensure their preservation and availability for study. The lack of information on documented acquisition circumstances of recently published papyri highlights pitfalls in current ethical practices and calls for more stringent policies. An appendix publishes for the first time correspondence from the John Rylands Library archives documenting B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt's acquisition strategies in Egypt.