The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. returned a more than 1,000-year-old handwritten gospel to the Greek Orthodox Church on Tuesday. It was transferred to an Eastern Orthodox Church during a private ceremony in New York.
The manuscript, which had been looted from a Greek Monastery in World War I and was acquired by the museum at a Christie’s auction in 2011, is expected to be repatriated next month to the Kosinitza Monastery in northern Greece. There, for hundreds of years, it had been used in religious services, along with more than 400 volumes, before being taken by Bulgarian forces in 1917.
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The manuscript’s history and chain of ownership is traced on the Museum of the Bible’s website, including its creation in the late 10th- or early 11th-century through various sales after the end of the war.
This gospel is among the latest artifacts in the museum’s collection to be returned in an ongoing effort to regain credibility. The museum has been investigating the provenance of the whole collection in recent years. Early acquisitions by its founders, the owners of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, included thousands of items looted from the Middle East. In 2017, the company paid $3 million to settle claims with the U.S. government for failing to conduct proper due diligence before buying a number of antiquities in 2009.
“Certainly the marketplace has its challenges,” Museum of the Bible’s chief curatorial officer Jeffrey Kloha told the New York Times Tuesday. “Things have been moving in the market for some time, and in some cases decades, that have origins that are not legal.”
While the Museum of the Bible has never publicly displayed the manuscript, it was included in a traveling exhibition at the Vatican in 2012.
“The procedures in place now are very, very tight,” said Kloha of the Museum of the Bible’s more rigorous acquisition process. “If we don’t have every detail filled in, it’s simply not considered. The process is very different than it was 10 years ago.”
According to the Greek Orthodox Church, several other U.S. institutions still have artifacts among their holdings that were looted from the same monastery. In 2016, after the church asked for other looted manuscripts from the same monastery to be returned, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago obliged.
This is the latest among a number of ancient looted objects to be repatriated, with a number of the Benin Bronzes being returned in recent months and a possible deal over the Parthenon Marbles between the British Museum and Greece.