NEW YORK – Three Greek 16th and 17th-Century manuscripts taken from a monastery by Bulgarian combatants in 1917 during World War I that wound up at a Manhattan gallery – then lost – were found there and will be returned to Greece.
They were in the Swann Auction Galleries which in 2008 sold them to an antiquities dealer who returned them two years later, believing they had been stolen, said The New York Times.
The dealer was reimbursed but officials from the auction house said it couldn’t reach the person not identified who had consigned the items and they were put aside and forgotten.
They were found, the report said, early this year when the auction house’s Chief Financial Officer discovered them as his office was preparing to be renovated, finding them on a shelf in a plastic bag.
The report said Bulgarians took them among nearly 900 items plundered from the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery, often called Kosinitza, in northern Greece.
The manuscripts will be sent back to the monastery, and their return is to be commemorated in a repatriation ceremony in Lower Manhattan arranged by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Archbishop Elpidophoros of America is planning to travel to Constantinople to deliver the manuscripts to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the items then will go back to Kosinitza.
“It is a blessing for the monastic sisterhood at the monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa to see the contents of their former library slowly being returned to them,” Archbishop Elpidophoros said in a statement.
He said the church hopes that other organizations with manuscripts stolen from the monastery would also return them as Greece has seen a number of stolen treasures coming back.
That doesn’t include the Parthenon Marbles stolen early in the 19th Century off the Acropolis by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who sold them to the British Museum which claims to be the owners and is keeping them.
Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer specializing in art and cultural heritage law and a consultant for attorneys seeking return of documents they say were taken from the monastery told the paper that war gave a cover for their theft.
“Sometimes looting is done nation to nation,” she said. “Sometimes it’s done by individuals as a crime of opportunity,” by soldiers or plunderers without orders who just seize on the moment to steal treasures for themselves.
The monastery was founded around the 5th Century and by the 18th Century had 1,300 volumes, an Eastern Orthodox Church official wrote in 2015, adding it was attacked in 1917 by “marauding Bulgarian guerilla forces” who sacked its library.
Four days later, a letter from a local official to the Greek Foreign Affairs Delegation of Sofia said that about 60 bandits had entered the monastery, assaulted men there and used 24 mules to cart off their spoils.
After being rediscovered recently at Swann, the yellowed manuscripts made their way to the desk of Devon Eastland, a senior specialist in early printed books at the auction house, the newspaper said.
One is titled Commemoration List of the Venerable and Patriarchal Monastery of Our Most Glorious Lady and Mother of God, of Kosinitsa and lists former monks and people who had donated to the monastery and another had signatures of monastery officials.
“I wanted to find out where the manuscripts should go,” Eastland told the newspaper. “If they were stolen, they needed to go back to the people they were taken from,” he said.
He said he found research notes from the antiquities dealer indicating that writing the manuscripts gave their source as Kosinitza. After reading the notes, Eastland wrote to George Tsougarakis, General Counsel for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, to inform him.
Tsougarakis, while in private practice, had sued Princeton University in 2018 on behalf of the monastery, saying a collection at the school included manuscripts plundered from Kosinitza.
The university responded that it was confident that its provenance research had established the manuscripts were not looted and refused to give them back. The lawsuit is still ongoing.