Museum of the Bible Gives Back Ancient Gospel Looted from Greek Monastery

August 26, 2022

In its effort to gain back credibility by returning tainted objects in its collection, the Museum of the Bible gave back a handwritten gospel more than a thousand years old to the Greek Orthodox Church. It was determined that the gospel had been looted from a Greek monastery during World War I.

The museum said that it transferred the artifact, which its founders attained at a Christie’s auction in 2011, to an Eastern Orthodox Church official in a private ceremony in New York. Next month, the manuscript will be repatriated to the Kosinitza Monastery in northern Greece. That is where it had been used in liturgical services for hundreds of years before stolen by Bulgarian forces in 1917 as reported by The New York Times.

The return came during a time when the museum is trying to regain their reliability. They are investigating the origin of its entire collection after their founding fathers, the owners of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, stole artifacts from Mesopotamia and Egypt. The company paid $3 million in 2017 to settle claims with the U.S. government over not exercising due diligence in a multi-million dollar worldwide antiques buying spree back in 2009.

The Greek Orthodox Church claims that numerous other American institutions hold artifacts stolen from the same monastery.

The Museum of the Bible’s website tracks down the manuscript’s history and initial ownership, beginning with its creation in the late 10th or early 11th century, through the looting of the monastery in 1917, and the sales that occurred after the war ended. It was resold at auction in the United States in 1958, and more recently by Christie’s in 2011.

“Certainly the marketplace has its challenges,” said Jeffrey Kloha, the Museum of the Bible’s chief curatorial officer, who was called in following the accusations. He noted, “things have been moving in the market for some time, and in some cases decades, that have origins that are not legal.”

Some of the pages of the manuscript darkened due to the smoke from the candlelit prayers and others smudged over the centuries by monks turning the pages. These were among a library of over 400 manuscripts carried off by mules of the Bulgarian forces who rushed into the monastery in 1917.

“It’s definitely an object that was used,” Kloha said, adding, “it would have been part of monastic life on a regular basis.”

The Museum of the Bible, which launched in 2017, has not publicly displayed the manuscript due to queries over provenance. The manuscript was incorporated in a traveling exhibition at the Vatican in 2012, however.

“I think the Museum of the Bible is a great example of how not to build a collection, but I do wish other American museums would follow its example when dealing with their own existing problematic collections,” said Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, which aims to fight the illicit trade in antiquities. “In this case, curators saw red flags, they followed where they led, realized the manuscript was stolen, reached out to its rightful owners and voluntarily returned it.”

Kloha mentioned that he hopes that the move to return the manuscript will urge other institutions to do the same.

The Greek Orthodox Church sued Princeton University four years ago in an attempt to recover four manuscripts many scholars believed were looted. The case has not been resolved, however in 2018, the university said that it did not believe the manuscripts had been stolen.

In 2015, the Church asked for other manuscripts to be returned that were held by Duke University, the Morgan Library, and the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago as they were believed to be looted from the same monastery.

Davis, from the Antiquities Coalition, said, “there are surprisingly few legal sources of sacred art on the market,” adding, “it serves as yet another warning of the risk of buying ancient art and artifacts.” Davis said that most religious antiquities were looted from either archaeological sites or graves or stolen from religious institutions.

“It’s not just individuals or amateurs who are getting in trouble and making mistakes,” she said. “It’s the top auction houses, it’s the top museums, it’s the top collectors.”

Photos of the manuscript can be seen at: Greek Gospel Manuscript.


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