Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople filed a lawsuit on Thursday, December 14 against Princeton University demanding the return of what were called “stolen” Byzantine-era manuscripts from a monastery in northern Greece.
For decades, these works of art– that are also sacred texts, according to the Church– have been part of Princeton University’s most prized collections of rare manuscripts, donated by a trustee in 1942 who said he bought them from a German auctioneer decades earlier.
The lawsuit that was filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey claims that the four manuscripts in question were stolen by Bulgarian invaders during World War I and demanded their return.
The evidence provided in various exhibits of the lawsuit contend that Bulgarian guerrilla forces stormed the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Monastery in 1917, assaulted the monks who lived there and carried off dozens of ancient ancient texts– including the ones that made their way to the Princeton collection.
Incidentally, among the evidence cited in the lawsuit is an actual volume from Princeton University itself called “Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century: A Descriptive Catalogue,” which was published in 2010 and identifies some manuscripts in the school’s collection as having been removed from the monastery in 1917 by Bulgarian authorities.
“This is Princeton’s book, issued by the Princeton press, about Princeton’s collection, written by Princeton employees,” said George A. Tsougarakis, a lawyer for Hughes Hubbard & Reed in New York, who filed the suit and is representing the Greek Orthodox Church in the matter.
“In our view that’s about as concrete an admission as you could get,” Tsougarakis said in an interview.
Despite the evidence, the university isn’t admitting to any wrongdoing in obtaining the manuscripts and said in a statement Friday that it had full confidence that the provenance research it has done has established that the manuscripts were not looted.
“Based on the information available to us, we have found no basis to conclude that the manuscripts in our possession were looted during World War I or otherwise improperly removed from the possession of the patriarchate,” a university spokesman, Michael Hotchkiss, said in an email.
The Byzantine-era manuscripts sought by the plaintiffs are St. John Chrysostom’s “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” written in A.D. 955 by the scribe Nikephoros the Notary; St. John Climacus’s “Heavenly Ladder” written in A.D. 1081 in Constantinople by the scribe Joseph; and pages from the ninth century that were probably part of “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew” that may have been rebound at some point to “Heavenly Ladder.”
The Ecumenical Patriarchate first requested the return of five manuscripts at Princeton in a letter in 2015 that called them “indelible and invaluable pieces of Byzantine culture” and “hallowed writings that are still cherished and revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church and its faithful.”
The Greek Orthodox Church also provided as additional evidence in the lawsuit a letter from a local official to the Greek Foreign Affairs Delegation of Sofia, in Bulgaria, that described the attack.
The letter, which was written in French, said that “a gang of 60 criminals” forcibly entered the monastery and mercilessly beat two men to force them to divulge where the precious objects of the monastery were kept. The raiders then gathered manuscripts, printed books and other items including gold florins, the letter said.
“The bandits, after picking up all the prizes at the monastery, loaded their booty on 24 mules, which they had brought with them for this purpose, and left without having been disturbed by anyone,” the official, N. Bacopoulos, wrote.
The stolen manuscripts were taken to Sofia, where they were distributed to dealers, book sellers and auction houses across Central Europe, the lawsuit said. The four manuscripts that Princeton has were said to have come from the Frankfurt-based auction house Joseph Baer & Co.
Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, a New York-based priest and right hand to the Ecumenical Patriarch who is assisting in this legal matter told The New York Times in an interview that the manuscripts were “part of our spiritual and cultural identity.”
“They’re part of sacred history, and that’s our spiritual and cultural identity,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that the loss of the manuscripts and the efforts to recover them had been “very painful.”
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