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Officials Applaud Return Of Medieval Folios

Pages in the Annals of Art Theft
Officials Applaud Return Of Medieval Folios
By Sarah Booth Conroy
Special to The Washington Post
Scholarly expertise, a lengthy investigation and a new level of
international cooperation recently resolved the theft of some
irreplaceable Spanish and Italian medieval folios. Samuel Banks, U.S.
Customs Service deputy commissioner, returned four 13th- and
14th-century illuminated pages to Spanish Ambassador Antonio Oyarzabal
late last month and the folios are on their way to Spanish cathedral
Libraries in Tortosa and Toledo. In June, the Customs Service returned
three other folios to the Vatican Library in Rome. During celebratory
ceremonies at the Spanish chancery recently, J. Michael Marous,
assistant U.S. attorney in Columbus, Ohio; Mark Beauchamp, a customs
special agent; and Juan Hidalgo Cuesta, Spanish Embassy cultural
attache, told the story to the Chronicler. The mystery began on March
26, 1994, when Anthony J. Melnikas, a recently retired Ohio State
University art history professor, consigned two 14th-century Spanish
folios to Akron art dealer Bruce Ferrini. Ferrini offered them in his
catalogue as "King Freeing Slave" and "Dog and Man Fighting," named
for the small and exquisite miniature pictures set in the text. The
folios were priced from about $15,000 to $20,000. A year later,
Ferrini visited Melnikas's Upper Arlington, Ohio, residence to see
what the professor called some important Italian folios; they were
framed and hanging on his walls. Ferrini became suspicious and
informed U.S. Customs Service officials. Photographs and photocopies
were sent to James Marrow, a Princeton University art history
professor. Marrow took only a few hours of research to identify the
pages as treatises on farming and war from the Vatican Library,
commissioned and annotated by 14th-century poet-philosopher Francesco
Petrarch. Father Leonard Boyle, the Vatican Library prefect, confirmed
their loss and remembered that Melnikas had asked to see the
manuscript in 1987. Another art expert, Susan L'Engle,on leave from
the Pierpont Morgan Library, traced two cutouts to the 13th-century
"Gratiani Decretum" owned by the Tortosa Cathedral and two
14th-century papers to the Toledo cathedral Library. One, the dog
page, had been sold to a European collector, but payment was canceled
after the investigation and the manuscript is expected to be returned.
Marous estimated the value of the Spanish pages at $5,000 to $15,000
each. Hidalgo, the cultural attache, learned during the investigation
that since 1965, Melnikas had regularly researched medieval folios in
the Toledo cathedral library, and perhaps as well in the Tortosa
cathedral archives. In 1975 his scholarly treatise "Corpus of the
Miniature in the Manuscripts of Decretum Gratiani" was published and
favorably received. "Gratiani Decretum," Hidalgo explained, means the
legal scholar Gratian's canon and civil decrees with his commentary.
"Back then there was no Separation between the two," Hidalgo said.
"The all-powerful church told everybody when to go to bed and when to
get up." In the medieval centuries his scholastic milestone was widely
copied. Melnikas first told authorities he bought the items from a
Spanish print-seller. Later, he offered other explanations for his
acquisitions -- they came from a Roman poet, a Roman flea market, his
wife's inheritance. He finally swore in a statement that, as far as he
could remember, he found three loose manuscript leaves at the Vatican
Library "and they ended up in my possession in the other papers --
research notes." (The Vatican pages have been valued at about
$150,000.) But, he said, now that he noticed the edges had signs of
being cut out, "it could be that I have done it." "Melnikas visited
the Vatican library hundreds of times," said Marous, who prosecuted
the case. "He was considered one of the family or a piece of furniture
around the library. He collaborated with the Vatican Library in
publishing his 1975 three-volume work, and in 1987 was working with
the Library translating the Vatican's `Gratiani Decretum' into modern
Latin." Marous added that Melnikas normally would do his research in
the summer when the library was closed to the public, "often enabling
him to be virtually alone and unsupervised in the manuscript reading
room." Putting all the pieces together took investigators 14 months.
The case marked the first prosecution of trafficking in foreign-origin
artifacts under the united States Archaeological Resources Protection
Act. A year ago this month, Melnikas pleaded guilty to eight federal
charges of possessing and attempted sale of smuggled and stolen
archaeological property. The scholar, now serving a 14-month sentence,
was fined $3,400 and ordered to pay $10,000 for the return delivery
and restoration of the pages, as well as perform 250 hours of
community service.
Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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