Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2019 Issue

A Greek Monastery Battles Princeton University for Some Very Old Manuscripts

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St. John Climacus' Heavenly Ladder from 1081 (Princeton University Press photo).

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law" is one of those old idioms that may need updating, at least in the books and manuscripts field. In recent years, it has been more common to look at old transfers of possession to see if they were legally accomplished. If an item was stolen, even many years ago, title never transferred, meaning the original owner (or their heirs) still owns the property. They have a right to reclaim it, without paying anything for it. If the alleged theft or illegal transfer was recent, it usually can be readily determined who is the rightful owner. What if the transfer happened a century or more ago, under uncertain circumstances, with no living witnesses to be found? Now it gets murky.

 

Princeton University was sued last month by a monastery in rural Greece. The suit is based on a claim a century old. Princeton disagrees. Here is the story, as alleged by the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Monastery, along with the Holy Metropolis of Drama and Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople. That's a mighty troika, but then again, so is Princeton strong, and the university gets to play on its home field, the Federal District Court of New Jersey.

 

At issue are four manuscripts. They are dated to 955, 1081, and the "new" one, the 16th century. The monastery is even older, dating to the 5th century. The plaintiffs argue that the manuscripts were housed in the monastery library for "centuries." However, on March 27, 1917, in the midst of the First World War, they allege, "Bulgarian forces stormed the Monastery and stole the most valuable manuscripts of the Monastery's library, including the Manuscripts at issue here." They continue, the manuscripts were taken to the Bulgarian capitol city of Sophia. Within a few years, these and other stolen manuscripts, they say, made their way to dealers and auction houses across central Europe.

 

In 1921, the 16th century manuscript was sold by Baer Auction House. The purchaser was Princeton University. In 1924, the other three were purchased by Robert Garrett, a collector of antiquarian manuscripts and a trustee of Princeton University (he also won the discus and shot put competition at the 1896 Olympics in Athens). He gave them to Princeton in 1942.

 

The Eastern Orthodox Church has made several claims for old manuscripts they believe were taken illegally in recent years. Sometimes, the holders of such material agree the claims are justified and voluntarily turn them over. Duke University and the Getty Museum have returned manuscripts in recent years. However, more often, the holders believe their possession is legal.

 

In what is the ultimate case of "gotcha," the Monastery cites the publication Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century A Descriptive Catalogue, by Sofia Kotzabassi and Nancy Patterson Sevcenko, published by the Princeton University Press in 2010. That catalogue notes that the 1081 manuscript was described in the Kerameus Catalogue as being in the monastery's library in 1885. It then goes on to say, "In 1917 it was removed from the monastery by the Bulgarian authorities and presumably taken to Sofia." The Princeton catalogue concludes its discussion of provenance by noting it showed up in Joseph Baer's catalogues in 1920-21, and was purchased in 1924 on behalf of Robert Garrett by bookseller Wilfrid Voynich (he of Voynich manuscript fame). In the case of the 16th century manuscript, the Princeton Catalogue states that it was written at the Eikosiphoinissa Monastery where it remained until 1917, next showing up in the 1920-21 Baer catalogue, and sold that year to Princeton University.

 

To further its claim that the manuscripts were stolen by the Bulgarian troops, the Monastery also alleges, "On March 27, 1917, Bulgarian troops stormed the Monastery, assaulted the resident monks, and stole, among other things, the most valuable manuscripts of its library, including the Manuscripts. The theft is recounted in a letter dated March 31, 1917 - four days after the theft - and written by the Mayor of Drama to the Greek Foreign Affairs Delegation of Sofia, Bulgaria. A copy of the letter [was] published in Rapports et Enquetes de la Commission Interalliee Sur Les Violations Du Droit Des Gens Commises En Macedoine Orinetale."

 

Of course, this is the Monastery's side of the story. We don't yet know Princeton's position. They have made no official statement pertaining to the lawsuit. However, it has been reported that university spokesman Michael Hotchkiss issued an email statement, that "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."

 

We don't yet know to what sort of "information" Princeton is referring. Perhaps they believe the monastery was not "stormed," or the manuscripts "stole[n]." Maybe they are simply referring to what they consider insufficient confirming evidence of the Monastery's claim. We do not know. Possession does matter, and right now, Princeton has possession. However, to say it represents 9/10ths of the law anymore seems a bit optimistic. I don't know who will win this case, but possession is no longer a guarantee.


Posted On: 2019-01-20 21:05
User Name: MiRIAMGREEN

possession is no longer a guarantee
it seems obvious that the manuscripts were removed as documented. that the provenance through the booksellers to Princeton is straightforward. Princeton possession of these manuscripts is move than a century old. Yet they had been at the monastery for centuries. Princeton's arguments [as they are so weak] present a case against them in their own words. Why should they claim ownership? Is there a cultural obligation, a bibliographic protocol that a manuscript return and remain where it was originally housed? Does Princeton ignore the claims of the institution strictly on possession. This is not a football.


Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Book of Hours. Illuminated manuscript, Flanders or northern France, c. 1450. With 12 full-page illuminated miniatures. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Zahrawi, Abu’-Qasim, al- (c. 936-1013). <i>Albucasis chirurgicorum omnium,</i> Strasbourg, 1532. The first comprehensive illustrated treatise on surgery. £3,000 to £5,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Milles, Thomas. <i>The Custumers Alphabet and Primer,</i> 1608. Gilt supralibros of 17th-century English bibliophile Edward Gwynn. £2,000 to £3,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Guillemeau, Jacques. <i>Child-Birth or, the Happy Deliverie of Women,</i> 1st edition in English, 1612. The second midwifery manual printed in English. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Rabisha, William. <i>The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected,</i> 1st edition, 1661. Rare. Five copies in libraries. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Royal binding. <i>An Abridgment of the English Military Discipline,</i> 1678. Contemporary red goatskin gilt by Samuel Mearne for Charles II (1630-1865). £1,500 to £2,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Pallavicino, Ferrante. <i>The Whores Rhetorick,</i> 1st edition in English, 1683. Rare anti-Jesuit satire. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>The Benefit of Farting,</i> 1st London edition, 1722. Teerink 19. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Edwards, George. <i>Natural History of Uncommon Birds</i> [and] <i>Gleanings of Natural History,</i> 7 volumes, 1743-64. Contemporary tree calf, 362 hand-coloured engraved plates. £8,000 to £12,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Campbell, Patrick. <i>Travels in the Interior Inhabited Parts of North America,</i> 1st edition, 1793. Howes C101; Sabin 10264. Uncut in original boards. £5,000 to £8,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Hearne, Samuel. <i>A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean,</i> 1st edition, 1795. Sabin 31181. Large-paper copy. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Edgeworth, Maria. <i>The Match Girl, A Novel,</i> 1808. £1,000 to £1,500
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ian Fleming, <i>Goldfinger,</i> first edition, inscribed to Sir Henry Cotton, MBE, London, 1959. Sold for $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Joseph Brant, Mohawk Chief, ALS, writing after pledging support to King George III against American rebels, 1776. Sold for a record $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Sonia Delaunay, <i>Ses Peintures</i> . . ., 20 pochoir plates, Paris, 1925. Sold for a record $13,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Diana, Princess of Wales, 6 autograph letters signed to British <i>Vogue</i> editor, 1989-92. Sold for $10,400.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alexander Hamilton, ALS, as Secretary of the Treasury covering costs of the new U.S. Mint, 1793. Sold for $12,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, <i>Security Analysis,</i> first edition, inscribed by Graham to a Wall Street trader, NY, 1934. Sold for $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> George Barbier & François-Louis Schmied, <i>Personnages de Comédie,</i> Paris, 1922. Sold for $9,375.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli,</i> Paris, 1897. Sold for a record $13,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ralph Waldo Emerson, <i>The Dial,</i> first edition of the reconstituted issue, Emerson’s copy with inscriptions, Cincinnati, 1860. Sold for a record $3,250.
  • <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger, <i>La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange N.-D.,</i> Paris, Editions de la Sirène, 1919
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> André Breton, <i>Second manifeste du Surréalisme,</i> Paris, Editions Kra, 1930
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Paul Eluard and Pablo Picasso, <i>La Barre d’appui,</i> Paris, Editions « Cahiers d’Art », 1936
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger, <i>La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange N.-D.,</i> Paris, Editions de la Sirène, 1919
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Hans Bellmer, <i>Die Puppe,</i> Paris, G.L.M., 1936
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Salvador Dali, <i>La femme visible,</i> Paris, Editions Surréalistes, 1930
  • <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini. June 27</b>
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KENNEDY ONASSIS, JACQUELINE Typed letter signed to Oleg Cassini. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> [CASSINI-KENNEDY FASHIONS] Important archives related to the development of fashions for Mrs. Kennedy… $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> [CASSINI-KENNEDY FASHIONS] Detailed ledger of the Kennedy White House years… $500 to $800
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KELLY, GRACE. Four autograph letters to Oleg Cassini. $5,000 to $8,000
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini. June 27</b>
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> CASSINI, OLEG. Group of Kennedy-era original fashion sketches. $1,000 to $1,500
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KENNEDY ONASSIS, JACQUELINE. Autograph letter signed to Oleg Cassini. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> CASSINI, OLEG. Fashion sketch titled “Mrs. Kennedy-Palais de Versailles-State Dinner.” $800 to $1,200
    Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini: [CASSINI, OLEG - KENNEDY, JACQUELINE.] Group of approximately 130 original fashion designs… $800 to $1,200.
  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.

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