Legal Settlement with Armenian Church Lets Getty Museum Keep Prized Medieval Bible Pages


A page from the Zeyt'un Gospels

A page from the Zeyt’un Gospels

By Mike Boehm

LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times) — 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 January 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.

“It’s a resolution both sides are equally happy with, a win-win,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “It’s an acknowledgment of their ownership, but maintains the work as an integral part of the collection here.”

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.

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. The case was brought to acknowledge the ownership of the church and [establish] recognition that they were taken during the Armenian genocide. It had devastating effects felt for generations, including much loss of cultural patrimony, particularly of the Armenian Church.”

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 is 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 January 26 in the Getty’s exhibition “Traversing the Globe Through Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts.”

The church’s legal position got a boost in December 2013 from a ruling in another art-restitution case brought against a Spanish museum, involving California heirs of a family that lost a painting by Camille Pissarro during the Holocaust.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to declare unconstitutional a special 2011 California law that extends the statute of limitations for claims to recover allegedly stolen works held by museums and art dealers. That took away some of the Getty’s legal ammunition.

But Boyd, the Armenian Church’s attorney, said that pushing forward rather than settling the suit would have meant fighting additional procedural battles over whether the church had waited too long to sue.

In court documents the Getty had pointed to articles published in 1943 and 1952 that showed church officials were fully aware that the family in Massachusetts possessed the canon tables, and did not take action to get them back.

Also important to the settlement, Boyd said, was the knowledge that the Getty can give the artworks the best scholarly attention and technical care. “The Matenadaran has expanded its preservation abilities, but [Armenia] is still an emerging economy and the resources are not there as they are at the Getty,” she said. Boyd said “there are hopes this resolution will forge a relation between the Getty and the Armenian church” in which the Getty, which has an international program for art conservation, would take on projects in Armenia.

Potts said that “it could happen…but that hasn’t been a part of the [settlement] agreement.”

The museum director said another future possibility is a joint exhibition in which the Getty would loan its pages to the Matenadaran for an exhibition of the entire Zeyt’un gospels in Armenia, and in turn the full book would be shown at the Getty.

More likely in the near term, Potts said, is a ceremony to mark the church’s donation of the art to the museum.

“It’s an important moment for both parties, and we would love for there to be some such event,” he said.