Armenian Culture, Science and Education Development Foundation

Legal settlement with Armenian church lets Getty Museum keep prized medieval Bible pages


As LAtimes reports, the Getty Museum will keep eight brilliantly illustrated table of contents pages from a 750-year-old Armenian Bible after settling a long-running lawsuit brought by an American branch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The church contended they had been illegally separated from the rest of the book amid the Armenian genocide during World War I.
The Getty and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America jointly announced the settlement Monday. Both sides said they were happy with the outcome, but for very different reasons.

The Getty gets to keep the art, and the church gets recognition that all along it has been the rightful owner of the pages, which were separated about 100 years ago from a complete Bible called the Zeyt’un gospels.
The rest of the book is at the Matenadaran, a museum and library for manuscripts in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The Getty bought its pages in 1994 from an Armenian American family for $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

Under the settlement, attorneys said, the church will donate the eight pages, known as a “canon table” that prefaces the rest of the Bible, to the Getty on Jan. 1, 2016. The Getty will pay all legal expenses from the suit the church had brought in 2010 – a sum attorneys for the two sides declined to disclose.

As noted director of the Getty Museum Timothy Potts it’s a resolution both sides are equally happy with. Potts said that the Getty will keep custody of the manuscript pages until it officially takes ownership.

They were created during the mid-1200s by a renowned Armenian artist, T’oros Roslin, but were separated from the rest of the Zeyt’un Bible sometime during the upheaval caused by the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918. It claimed the lives of about 1.2 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place.

Lee Boyd, the attorney for the Armenian church, said its main objective was not to wrest the pages from the Getty, which it feels has been a good custodian and offers continuing access to a Southern California public that includes a large number of Armenian Americans.The foremost goal, she said, was to set the historic record straight and draw attention to the fact that there is much unfinished legal business for heirs of Armenian families or institutions that lost property during the genocide.

“This is the first restitution of an artwork from the Armenian genocide,” Boyd said. “I hope it’s not the last.

Before the settlement, according to court files, the church had sought the pages’ return, along with damages of at least $35 million. But both sides would have been on unpredictable legal terrain had the case proceeded, complicated by what Potts described as “lots of gray areas and facts we don’t know” relating to the manuscript pages’ whereabouts during and immediately after World War I.

According to court documents, the Zeyt’un Gospels were housed at a church in a traditionally Armenian area of what’s now Turkey. As chaos broke out, members of the Armenian community removed the prized Bible from the church for safe keeping. At some point the front pages with the most beautiful art were separated from the rest.
They wound up in possession of an Armenian man who immigrated to the United States in 1923, settling in Massachusetts. That family handed them down through generations until the Getty bought them more than 70 years later.

The pages became a highlight of the Getty’s collection of illuminated manuscripts. The materials – paint on vellum, a parchment made from calf’s skin — are too fragile and light-sensitive to be on permanent or frequent display, Potts said. But as delicate medieval manuscripts go, the Zeyt’un canon tables have been in heavy rotation, with one or more pages displayed in 11 exhibitions since 1997 – 10 at the Getty and one at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
They will have been out of view for 19 months when two of the pages go back on display Jan. 26 in the Getty’s exhibition “Traversing the Globe Through Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts.”

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