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Britain urged to return 12th century manuscript

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Britain urged to return 'looted' Italian treasure

AN ITALIAN archbishop is demanding the return of an important 12th-century
manuscript in the British Library, believed to have been looted from a
cathedral near Naples during the Second World War.

The 290-folio missal, from the chapter library of Benevento, north east of
Naples, was bought by the British Library at Sotheby's in 1947, despite it=
s own
suspicions that it had been looted.

It was consigned to the auction house by a former British Army officer who
claimed to have bought it from a second-hand bookseller in 1944.

Now, according to this month's The Art Newspaper, Seraphinus Sprovieri, th=
Archbishop of Benevento, is planning to make a claim to the Spoliation Adv=
Panel, the committee set up by the British Government last February to res=
disputes over art and antiques looted during the Nazi era which may now be=
national collections.

Benevento is in fact renewing a claim it made in 1978. Its call then was
dismissed by the library, which argued a legal loophole, that "under Engli=
law, your chapter library unfortunately lost their title to the manuscript=
the end of six years after the loss of the object".

Yesterday, the library said that it could not legally return the manuscrip=
t and,
in any case, it was focusing on items possibly looted by the Nazis.

The missal's wartime story dates back to September 1943. After German troo=
ps had
taken control of Benevento, American air raids destroyed most of the magni=
Romanesque cathedral and damaged the nearby chapter library in Piazza Orsi=
The priests moved the surviving manuscripts and booksto the Pontificio Sem=
Regionale "Pio XI", in the Viale Atlantici. A month later, the Germans lef=
leaving the town deserted for a few days until the Allied forces arrived a=
commandeered the Seminario for their troops.

The Art Newspaper reports that the priests had to leave and that Archbisho=
Seraphinus Sprovieri suggests the missal disappeared during this period. I=
loss was recorded in the aftermath of the war, when other manuscripts were
returned to the chapter library.

It was first shown to the British Library in 1946 by a Captain D. G. Ash f=
London, who had served with the Royal Artillery Regiment.

He told them he had bought it in 1944 from a Naples bookseller. But in a 1=
letter to him, the library said: "It is an offence to possess looted prope=
rty. .
. If the manuscript is not loot, you have been fortunate enough to obtain =
manuscript which, on account of its liturgical interest, an institution su=
ch as
this would be happy to possess."

Seven months later, the missal turned up at Sotheby's and was bought for =A3=
420 by
a London dealer, on behalf of the British Library, which later bought it f=

The Art Newspaper said that there was no evidence in the surviving papers =
of any
checks having been made to follow up earlier fears that the missal had bee=

It said researchers had overlooked that "the manuscript is noted as belong=
ing to
the chapter library in E. A. Loew's standard book, The Beneventan Script,
published in Oxford in 1914."

Benevento discovered the manuscript's whereabouts in 1976, when the archbi=
made a claim through the Italian Ministry of Culture. A formal claim was m=
ade in
1978 by Archbishop Raffaele Calabria, who was later told that the legal lo=
meant "we are very sorry to have to tell you that the return of the missal=
Benevento is not possible".

Italy has been inspired to renew its claim after the change in climate ove=
r the
restitution of looted works of art.

The British Library has pledged to give "prompt and serious consideration"=
claims to title for specific works in their collections" and will publish =
report shortly, on its research of items from 1933-45 with an unclear

Alice Prochaska, the library's director of special collections, said: "Our=
objective is to look at material wrongfully taken during the Holocaust by =

She said the library, in buying the missal, must have been satisfied that =
vendor had legal title. Today the library could not legally return the
manuscript as it was "a question for Government policy".

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