From Athens to Washington via London: The story of a stolen and found medieval codex of the four Gospels

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GA 2120 in the exhibit case. Screenshot from the MOTB Facebook video:

For once, I am writing in praise of my friends of the Washington Museum of the Bible. They seem to have (finally!) understood what provenance means and implies, and are going to give back a medieval codex to its legitimate owner, the University of Athens.

A video posted on Facebook explains how a Byzantine vellum manuscript containing the four canonical Gospels was stolen from Athens, ended in the United States via London in 2010, and will be repatriated this coming October. I am not surprised this has happened considering the way Mr Green acquired on the market in those years, with the help (so to speak) of Scott Carroll, but the story is fascinating and I am very happy the Museum seems to have taken the right path in cleaning-up their warehouses. Critics might comment that this is a MOTB’s communication strategy to restore the bad reputation gained in recent years: maybe yes, but I welcome the change of direction and the fact that through operations like this one, we will have access to invaluable information on the flux of manuscripts on the illicit and grey market, as it will be apparent at the end of this blog post. I have been very clear on the questionable source of at least part of the Green papyri that I hope will be similarly studied and then sent back to Egypt: what has happened with this twelfth century manuscript seems indeed a good start. But as I was saying, the story, which is currently at the centre of a well thought but rather dull display in the Museum (do find a better graphic designer, please…), has many interesting sides that deserve to be considered.

The chain of modern ownership of the codex goes back to Spyridon Lampros (1851–1919), a Greek classicist and politician, who taught at the University of Athens where he also served as Provost. Lampros’ legacy was inherited by the daughter, Lina Tsaldari, who was his assistant, had a political career too, and in 1964 donated her father’s collection of manuscripts, including the codex in question, to the University’s Byzantine Seminar. The Byzantine book has been well known and studied, and has been recorded by specialists as Gregory Aland 2120.

Then in 1987 the University of Athens established a History Museum and GA 2120 was one of four artefacts to be borrowed from the Seminar in order to be on exhibit. The codex went missing (= stolen, as it is now clear) most probably between 1987 and 1991, since that year a museum inventory did not include it. This is a typical story that demonstrates how fragile manuscripts and other cultural heritage objects are, even those owned by Universities and other public institutions that in theory should protect them for future study and care.

GA 2120 re-emerged in December 1998, when it was sold on auction at Sotheby’s, London. Unsurprisingly the auction catalogue entry did not offer a single line on the collection history of the Gospels book. Moreover it did not recognise the manuscript as GA 2120 and had a misleading inaccurate description. For instance, the book scribe was wrongly identified as the famous Theodor Hagiopetrides, while he is in fact a less renowned monk Theodoros the Sinner as the colophon, which was even included in the catalogue, showed (this raises the question if some collectors are indeed able to understand and appreciate the manuscripts they buy…). Of course the identification with a famous scribe raised the price nicely for the (illicit) owner and Sotheby’s: they know how to sell at Sotheby’s, that’s their job. We are miles away from cultural heritage protection and study so collectors, please, get to grip with it and try to avoid to be cheated so easily.

To my mind, the inaccuracy of the entry of the Sotheby’s catalogue can only be explained in two ways: either Sotheby’s manuscript curators were embarrassingly incompetent or the entry was voluntarily deceptive. Both hypotheses are disturbing. By that time the manuscript had also lost some pages (Sotheby’s records 261, while the codex had 263 according to older catalogues). It should be brought in mind that thieves do not take care of manuscripts and unscrupulous book dealers sometimes dismember codices in order to sell them more easily and for higher sums.

Equally disturbing are some other aspects of the following vicissitudes of GA 2120. A bookplate seems to show that at some point it was with Rick Adams, the internet entrepreneur and collector, then in 2010 it was sold to Mr Green by “a rare book dealer in London”. Mr Green and his people have the habit to protect unscrupulous dealers, so we will never be told who this one is.

In conclusion, the life of our codex demonstrates twice (Sotheby’s and the rare book dealer) that London is indeed a good location for stolen manuscripts to be cleaned and then sold for high prices, through methods that may include dismembering and producing deceptive catalogue entries for collectors, like Mr Adams and Mr Green, easy to be fooled. Let us also bear in mind that each single collector who is aware that a dealer has dismembered, mutilated or ruined a manuscript and does not denounce this shame publicly is complicit in the destruction of human cultural heritage. Finally, I would also like to highlight that despite the key role in the legal and illegal market in antiquities, the United Kingdom has a tiny, understaffed Art and Antiquities Squad of three people based in London who try to fight an impossible fight. For the joy of the crooks.

(I wish to thank my colleague and friend Tommy Wasserman who discovered the real identity of the book while working for the Green/MOTB, and has discussed some aspects of the story with me. Opinions expressed in this post are exclusively mine)

The Museum of the Bible press releases: