Friday, November 4, 2011

Los Angeles County Judge Orders Getty Museum to Mediate Armenian Zeyt'un Bible Pages Dispute

The Matenadaran in Yereva, Armenia
where the Zeyt'un Gospel Bible is housed,
minus the seven pages at The Getty in L.A.
Author: TigranMets (Creative Commons)

The Getty Museum and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church are headed to mediation over the issue of the Zeyt’un Gospel pages. This week Judge Abraham Khan of the Los Angeles County superior court told the parties to return next spring if an agreement was not reached, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In June 2010 the Armenian Apostolic Church filed a civil lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum alleging that the museum acquired stolen property. The church seeks the return of seven manuscript pages, parts of an illuminated Bible that was created in 1256 and later lost during the Armenian bloodshed that occurred during the early 20th century. The actual Bible, minus its missing pages, is located in Armenia at The Matenadaran (officially known as the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts).

The church sued the Getty on four counts:
• Replevin, which is the legal action that a party takes to recover personal property that was taken unlawfully;

• Conversion, which is the legal claim that a party unlawfully used personal property for its own use;

• Treble damages--specifically $105 million--which is a tripling of monetary damages that is permitted by statute, in this case California’s penal law; and

• Quiet title, which is a legal action intended to remove doubt about who owns a certain piece of property.

At issue in the case is the provenance of the biblical pages, which are canon tables or an index. The Getty Museum states on its web site that “[t]he Zeyt'un Gospels, made in the scriptorium at Hromklay for Katholikos Constantine I in 1256, are the earliest signed work of T'oros Roslin, the most accomplished illuminator and scribe in Armenia in the 1200s. These canon tables were separated from the manuscript at some point in the past and eventually acquired by the Getty Museum, while the rest of the manuscript is in a public collection in Armenia.” In a June 2, 2010 press release issued just after the lawsuit was filed, the Getty said that it “legally acquired the Canon Tables in 1994 from a private collection in the United States after a thorough review of their provenance. They have been repeatedly described and reproduced in publications in English, Armenian and French. Indeed, a notable Armenian scholar who also was the primate of the Armenian Church of America acknowledged key details about the Canon Tables' provenance in a 1943 article, including the fact that they were owned by an Armenian family in the United States. The pages have been publicly exhibited throughout the United States, including a well-publicized 1994 exhibition of Armenian art and culture at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.” The Getty Museum added: “Promptly after acquiring the Canon Tables, the Getty prominently featured them in the J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, Volume 23, including a cover illustration. The Canon Tables have been published and exhibited several times since the Getty acquired them. At no time in the ninety or so years that the Canon Tables have been in the United States has anyone questioned their ownership.”

The Armenian church, meanwhile, writes in its initial legal complaint that “the seven missing stolen pages (canon tablets) of the Zeyt’un Gospel Bible ripped from the full manuscript that became stolen property eventually ended up in a private collection of a family in Watertown, Massachusetts, where they were loaned to the Piermont Morgan Library in 1994 for an exhibition entitled “Treasures From Heaven.” The family’s name remained anonymous at that time. The Catholicosate was never informed by the family or by the Piermont Morgan Library of their possession of the seven missing stolen pages which clearly were part of the entire Zeyt’un Gospel Bible manuscript.” The church adds that it only discovered the missing pages when they were noticed “by chance” at the Getty Museum in 2007.

Also at issue in this case is the statute of limitations. However, the court has saved its assessment of this issue for a later date if the parties cannot reach a mediated settlement.