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Britain urged to return 12th century manuscript
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- Subject: Britain urged to return 12th century manuscript
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- Date: Mon, 3 Jul 2000 08:25:27 +0000
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Britain urged to return 'looted' Italian treasure
BY DALYA ALBERGE, ARTS CORRESPONDENT
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=
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=
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=
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=
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=
. If the manuscript is not loot, you have been fortunate enough to obtain =
manuscript which, on account of its liturgical interest, an institution su=
this would be happy to possess."
Seven months later, the missal turned up at Sotheby's and was bought for =A3=
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 =
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=
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=
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=
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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