British Library told to return soldier's 'looted' Italian manuscript

The Times 24 March 2007
By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

A 12th-CENTURY manuscript in the British Library was looted from a cathedral near Naples during the Second World War and must be returned, an independent panel ruled yesterday.

The Spoliation Advisory Panel’s backing of a 27-year campaign by the city of Benevento to be reunited with a jewel of Italy’s heritage was dramatic because it also called for the Government to introduce a law to allow the restitution of looted treasures.

The panel, set up by the Government to resolve claims over art allegedly plundered during the Nazi era and now in public collections, concluded that Benevento had “made good their moral claim” for a “just and fair solution”.

It said that the manuscript should be returned as soon as possible on loan while the law is changed to allow its permanent return.

The 290-folio illuminated missal had been kept at the chapter library at the Romanesque cathedral of Benevento for hundreds of years before its removal in September 1943.

The panel, chaired by Sir David Hirst, a retired Lord Justice of Appeal, concluded that the manuscript disappeared in “suspicious circumstances”.

All that is known is that it was moved to a seminary just outside the city after the devastating bombing of 1943, before the American 5th Army’s advance and before it was bought by a British officer in the Intelligence Corps in 1944.

Douglas George Eric Dacre Ash, a British Army captain who died last year, had claimed to have bought it from a bookseller in Naples in 1944. Eventually it was bought by the British Museum Library in 1947 for £441.

Exporting the manuscript was illegal under Italian law but Captain Ash’s daughter told the panel that her father had posted the missal back to Britain. There is no evidence that Captain Ash looted the manuscript. The panel noted that he had openly disclosed his name, rank and address in taking the manuscript to the British Museum Library for an opinion.

He explained 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, it being described by the second-hand bookseller as ‘molto antico’. I am interested in anything old and have a collection of swords and armour, but this book is completely beyond me.”

The panel concluded that although the standards of the time were less rigorous than today’s, “the possibility that the missal had been looted was so manifest that its provenance should have been further investigated” — particularly as the museum’s deputy keeper of manuscripts had correctly recognised that the missal had come from Benevento.

The Metropolitan Chapter of the Archdiocese of Benevento, which first made a formal claim for the manuscript in 1978, was being advised pro bono by the City law firm Withers in presenting its case to the panel. Jeremy Scott, principal in the litigation department at Withers, was astonished by the library’s repeated dismissal of Benevento’s claim.

“The library argued strongly that the relevant librarian in Benevento after the war had not done enough to find out what had happened to the manuscript,” he said. “The panel didn’t think that was fair.

“In fact, the British Library didn’t publish this acquisition until about 1952. Our evidence was that people in Benevento had no idea it was in the British Library.”

The library had argued that the limitation period of six years from 1947 — the date of its acquisition — had long expired and that, even if it had wanted to return it, the terms of the British Library Act prevented it.


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