The Getty isn’t the worst institution when it comes to giving back other people’s stuff–they just aren’t the best. When, under the curatorship of Marion True, the museum vastly expanded its collection of artifacts from Greece and Italy, both countries pointed to objects in the Getty’s care that had been acquired illicitly. Numerous objects were returned, True was forced to resign, and the museum’s reputation emerged bruised but not broken.
Now they have another problem. Lawyers for the Armenian Orthodox Church claim that pages from the Zeyt’un Gospels, a sacred work of illumination in the Getty’s care, were bought from a man who had stolen them from the Church in 1916. They say that before the Armenian genocide, in which between 600,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians were killed or expelled from modern-day Turkey, the texts were removed and eventually placed in the hands Armenian American family without a legal title.
Insisting that they can document the Gospels’ provenance, lawyers for the Getty have argued that the Church had known of the texts’ whereabouts for decades and that their claim is past the deadline under the six-year statute of limitations. On Thursday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Abraham Khan denied their motion.
Here at Art Fag City, the inventory of Armenian art lovers in our immediate circle is small. We were nevertheless able to reach to Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian for comment, who speculated on the moral grounds for the Gospels’ return. “The big question is if the manuscripts changed hands during the Armenian Genocide and under what conditions,” Vartanian wrote in an email. “The Zeyt’un gospels are major works from the medieval era and I’m sure the Getty in LA, which is surrounded by a larger Armenian-American community, wants artifacts that represent their local populations, but there is a history to these objects that we need to know.”
“Having said all this, I should mention that returning them to the Armenian Church doesn’t mean everything will be alright. If they are returned I think the Getty must demand assurances that they will be safeguarded and made available to the public. There was a controversy a few years back that precious Armenian manuscripts from the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem were stolen by an insider who attempted to sell them at auction. The Zeyt’un gospels deserve better.”