Looted ancient book must be sent back to Italy

The Guardian 24 March 2005
Charlotte Higgins

Wartime loot may summon up images of art treasures plundered by the Nazis from persecuted Jews, rather than a rare book acquired by the British Library from a respectable English army captain.

But now a 12th-century missal which has formed part of the library's collection since 1947, must be returned to its home city of Benevento, in southern Italy, according to a ruling.

It is written in the rare Beneventan script, unique to the region, which flourished from the 8th to the 13th centuries.

The ruling marks the first time that an artwork plundered during the second world war and held in a British national collection will be returned to its rightful owners.

The claim was brought by the metropolitan chapter of the Cathedral of Benevento to the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a body set up in 2000 by the government to assess claims on art in national collections allegedly looted during the Nazi era.

The panel had to decide, according to Jeremy Scott, a lawyer of Withers LLP, which acted for the chapter of Benevento, "whether the object was lost in the Nazi era of 1933-45 in circumstances of the mayhem of war, and whether there was a 'moral case' for the restitution of the object, or compensation".

The panel's report, by Sir David Hirst, judged that the missal - though the evidence was "circumstantial" and the arguments "finely balanced" - had, in fact, been looted, and that the moral claim of the Italians for restoration held good.

The case was set in motion when Martin Bailey, a writer for the Art Newspaper, was tipped off about possible problems in the missal's provenance and reported on the looted manuscript in July 2000.

The following year he visited Benevento, in Campania, north-east of Naples, and in the course of discussion with Archbishop Serafino Sprovieri, "explained to him that he might have a chance" of getting the missal back.

"It was a very important cathedral, which was almost totally destroyed by allied bombing," said Mr Bailey. "That makes it so important that the missal goes back. Benevento lost so much."

How the missal got out of the Benevento chapter library and into the hands of Captain Douglas Ash, of the Intelligence Corps, is something of a mystery. But he showed it to the British Library in 1946 and wrote in a letter: "When I was in Italy I bought an old book in Naples in April 1944. Knowing nothing about it, except that it was very old, being described by the secondhand bookseller as molto antico."

After Capt Ash's death, his daughter recalled how the missal had arrived in the post from Italy, wrapped in "several yards of deep maroon or plum-coloured satin-like fabric", and rather damp.

The British Library (then the library of the British Museum) mooted that the book might be illegal plunder, but bought the missal for £420 the following year when it was auctioned by Capt Ash.

In September 1943, the allies bombed Benevento, virtually destroying its medieval cathedral. The books of the chapter library had already been carefully removed to the Pontifical seminary, just outside the city.

In October, Benevento was captured from the Germans by the allies, and the seminary was requisitioned and used as a military hospital until October 1944.

Happily for the reputation of the British officer class, Sir David thinks the open and honest behaviour of the late Capt Ash "is not typical of a thief or a culpable handler of stolen goods".

The missal was bought in good faith, he says, having been looted in late 1943 or early 1944.
The missal itself was written in the early 12th century at the scriptorium of the monastery of Santa Sofia in Benevento for the nuns of the Benedictine monastery of St Peter Intra Muros. It was acquired by the chapter of Benevento, it is thought, after an earthquake in 1688 drove the nuns to Naples. It has 290 folios, consisting of a missal and a calendar, and some musical notations of Beneventan chant.

The British Library has accepted the return of the missal. Dr Clive Field, its director of scholarship and collections, said: "It is a loss in our collection - that's entirely clear - but we do have other examples of the genre."

There is a twist in the tale: English law means that at present the missal can be returned only on loan. The act of parliament under which the British Library was founded (in common with the foundation statutes of other national museums) states that no objects from the collection can be disposed of. However, the panel has recommended a change in the law to exempt looted items from the Nazi era, and the arts minister, Estelle Morris, said that she would consider the recommendation.

The proposed adjustment would cover only items looted in the Nazi era and not other objects of disputed ownership, such as the Elgin marbles.

The case of the Beneventan missal is the third to be ruled on by the Spoliation Advisory Panel since British museums agreed in 1998 to publish lists of objects of "incomplete provenance" for the years 1933-45. The lists contain details of thousands of objects - more than 900 drawings from the Ashmolean Museum alone.

Paintings lost to their owners

• In November last year, the Spoliation Advisory Panel said a still life by the 18th-century French artist, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, should be restored to the descendants of German gallery owners who had sold it to pay a bogus Nazi tax bill in 1936. It was later acquired in good faith by Sir William Burrell. However, the painting is still in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The terms of Sir William's will prevent the "sale, donation or exchange" of artworks. The museum is understood to be in discussions with the anonymous relations of the original owners about the best way forward.

• In 2001, the British government agreed to pay £125,000 compensation to relations of a Düsseldorf banker, shot in 1937, who was the original owner of View of Hampton Court Palace (1710) by Jan Griffier the Elder. His wife was forced to sell it for food while in hiding in occupied Brussels. The painting remains in Tate Britain - by which it was purchased in good faith - with a note explaining its history.,3604,1444426,00.html#article_continue
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