Church Leaders Sue Princeton Over ‘Stolen’ Manuscripts

by Colin Moynihan

They are simultaneously sacred texts and works of art, three illuminated Byzantine-era manuscripts that are more than 1,000 years old and that for decades have been part of a heralded collection at Princeton University.


The Ladder of St. John Climacus

The college received the items as a gift in 1942 from a trustee and alumnus who had bought them from a German auction house nearly 20 years earlier.

But in a lawsuit filed Thursday, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church said the manuscripts were stolen and demanded their return, asserting that they had been taken during World War I from a monastery in Kormista, a village in northern Greece.

The plaintiffs in the federal suit filed in New Jersey, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, say that Bulgarian guerrilla forces stormed the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Monastery in 1917, assaulted the monks who lived there and made off with a trove of ancient texts.

Among the evidence cited in the lawsuit is a volume, “Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century: A Descriptive Catalogue,” which was published in 2010 and identifies some manuscripts in the school’s collection as having been removed from the monastery in 1917 by Bulgarian authorities.

“This is Princeton’s book, issued by the Princeton press, about Princeton’s collection, written by Princeton employees,” said George A. Tsougarakis, a lawyer for Hughes Hubbard & Reed in New York, which represents the patriarch, the monastery and regional church officials in the case. “In our view that’s about as concrete an admission as you could get.”

The university said in a statement Friday that it had full confidence that the provenance research it has done establishes that the manuscripts were not looted.

“Based on the information available to us, we have found no basis to conclude that the manuscripts in our possession were looted during World War I or otherwise improperly removed from the possession of the patriarchate,” a university spokesman, Michael Hotchkiss, said in an email.

The Byzantine-era manuscripts sought by the plaintiffs are St. John Chrysostom’s “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” written in A.D. 955 by the scribe Nikephoros the Notary; St. John Climacus’s “Heavenly Ladder” written in A.D. 1081 in Constantinople by the scribe Joseph; and pages from the ninth century that were probably part of “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew” that may have been rebound at some point to “Heavenly Ladder.”

Continue reading this article at The New York Times.

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