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[BKARTS] Looted ancient bookmust be sent back to Italy
Looted ancient book must be sent back to Italy
12th century missal found its way from a cathedral to the British Library.
Now its return may mean a law change
Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Thursday March 24, 2005
Wartime loot may summon up images of art treasures plundered by the Nazis
from persecuted Jews, rather than a rare book acquired by the British
Library from a respectable English army captain.
But now a 12th-century missal which has formed part of the library's
collection since 1947, must be returned to its home city of Benevento, in
southern Italy, according to a ruling.
It is written in the rare Beneventan script, unique to the region, which
flourished from the 8th to the 13th centuries.
The ruling marks the first time that an artwork plundered during the second
world war and held in a British national collection will be returned to its
The claim was brought by the metropolitan chapter of the Cathedral of
Benevento to the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a body set up in 2000 by the
government to assess claims on art in national collections allegedly looted
during the Nazi era.
The panel had to decide, according to Jeremy Scott, a lawyer of Withers LLP,
which acted for the chapter of Benevento, "whether the object was lost in
the Nazi era of 1933-45 in circumstances of the mayhem of war, and whether
there was a 'moral case' for the restitution of the object, or
The panel's report, by Sir David Hirst, judged that the missal - though the
evidence was "circumstantial" and the arguments "finely balanced" - had, in
fact, been looted, and that the moral claim of the Italians for restoration
The case was set in motion when Martin Bailey, a writer for the Art
Newspaper, was tipped off about possible problems in the missal's provenance
and reported on the looted manuscript in July 2000.
The following year he visited Benevento, in Campania, north-east of Naples,
and in the course of discussion with Archbishop Serafino Sprovieri,
"explained to him that he might have a chance" of getting the missal back.
"It was a very important cathedral, which was almost totally destroyed by
allied bombing," said Mr Bailey. "That makes it so important that the missal
goes back. Benevento lost so much."
How the missal got out of the Benevento chapter library and into the hands
of Captain Douglas Ash, of the Intelligence Corps, is something of a
mystery. But he showed it to the British Library in 1946 and wrote in a
letter: "When I was in Italy I bought an old book in Naples in April 1944.
Knowing nothing about it, except that it was very old, being described by
the secondhand bookseller as molto antico."
After Capt Ash's death, his daughter recalled how the missal had arrived in
the post from Italy, wrapped in "several yards of deep maroon or
plum-coloured satin-like fabric", and rather damp.
The British Library (then the library of the British Museum) mooted that the
book might be illegal plunder, but bought the missal for £420 the following
year when it was auctioned by Capt Ash.
In September 1943, the allies bombed Benevento, virtually destroying its
medieval cathedral. The books of the chapter library had already been
carefully removed to the Pontifical seminary, just outside the city.
In October, Benevento was captured from the Germans by the allies, and the
seminary was requisitioned and used as a military hospital until October
Happily for the reputation of the British officer class, Sir David thinks
the open and honest behaviour of the late Capt Ash "is not typical of a
thief or a culpable handler of stolen goods". The missal was bought in good
faith, he says, having been looted in late 1943 or early 1944.
The missal itself was written in the early 12th century at the scriptorium
of the monastery of Santa Sofia in Benevento for the nuns of the Benedictine
monastery of St Peter Intra Muros. It was acquired by the chapter of
Benevento, it is thought, after an earthquake in 1688 drove the nuns to
Naples. It has 290 folios, consisting of a missal and a calendar, and some
musical notations of Beneventan chant.
The British Library has accepted the return of the missal. Dr Clive Field,
its director of scholarship and collections, said: "It is a loss in our
collection - that's entirely clear - but we do have other examples of the
There is a twist in the tale: English law means that at present the missal
can be returned only on loan. The act of parliament under which the British
Library was founded (in common with the foundation statutes of other
national museums) states that no objects from the collection can be disposed
of. However, the panel has recommended a change in the law to exempt looted
items from the Nazi era, and the arts minister, Estelle Morris, said that
she would consider the recommendation.
The proposed adjustment would cover only items looted in the Nazi era and
not other objects of disputed ownership, such as the Elgin marbles.
The case of the Beneventan missal is the third to be ruled on by the
Spoliation Advisory Panel since British museums agreed in 1998 to publish
lists of objects of "incomplete provenance" for the years 1933-45. The lists
contain details of thousands of objects - more than 900 drawings from the
Ashmolean Museum alone.
Paintings lost to their owners
· In November last year, the Spoliation Advisory Panel said a still life by
the 18th-century French artist, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, should be
restored to the descendants of German gallery owners who had sold it to pay
a bogus Nazi tax bill in 1936. It was later acquired in good faith by Sir
William Burrell. However, the painting is still in the Burrell Collection in
Glasgow. The terms of Sir William's will prevent the "sale, donation or
exchange" of artworks. The museum is understood to be in discussions with
the anonymous relations of the original owners about the best way forward.
· In 2001, the British government agreed to pay £125,000 compensation to
relations of a Düsseldorf banker, shot in 1937, who was the original owner
of View of Hampton Court Palace (1710) by Jan Griffier the Elder. His wife
was forced to sell it for food while in hiding in occupied Brussels. The
painting remains in Tate Britain - by which it was purchased in good faith -
with a note explaining its history.
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