British Library to return Benevento Missal under Nazi loot law

The Times 1 December 2009

Benevento Missal
(Gill Allen/The Times)

The 12th-century missal was brought to Britain by an intelligence officer who had bought it in Naples in 1944

The Benevento Missal, which was stolen from a cathedral in southern Italy soon after the Allies bombed the city during the Second World War, has been in the collection of the British Library (formerly the British Museum Library) since 1947. After a change in the law, it could be back in Italy within months, according to The Art Newspaper.

The missal’s return could also focus attention on other, more high-profile cases, such as the campaign to return the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes from the British Museum to Athens and Nigeria.

However, the new law would not affect the legal status of such items because the new Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act applies only to claims dating from the Nazi era.

The new law, which comes into force in January, creates an exception for objects stolen during the period from 1933 to 1945. The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a body set up by the Government in 2000 to deal with complaints relating to the ownership of items in British museums, recommended four years ago that the missal should be returned to the Metropolitan Chapter of the cathedral city of Benevento, northeast of Naples.

The panel found that the missal had been looted and that the moral claim of the Italians held good. The decision triggered the process that culminated in the new legislation.

The missal is a 12th-century liturgical book in the unique Beneventan script, which flourished in the region from the 8th to the 13th centuries. It was written in the early 12th century at the scriptorium of the monastery of Santa Sofia for the nuns of the Benedictine monastery of St Peter Intra Muros.

It was brought to Britain by an intelligence officer, Captain Douglas Ash, who bought it in Naples in 1944 and later auctioned it in London.

Captain Ash wrote in a letter: “I bought an old book in Naples in April 1944, knowing nothing about it, except that it was very old, 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.”

How the book reached Naples is unknown, but the cathedral argued successfully that it vanished from its library after it was bombed in September 1943, directly relating the loss to “circumstances of the mayhem of war”. Jeremy Scott, of the law firm Withers, who represented the cathedral on a pro bono basis, welcomed the new law. “I will be submitting a renewed claim [on the cathedral’s behalf] after it comes into force,” he said.

A spokesman for the British Library said that the institution was keeping a “watching brief” and added: “We are aware that the legislation went through and there are obvious potential repercussions as far as that item is concerned.”

Stolen masterpieces

— Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais et l’Institut, taken by the Nazis, was returned last year to the family of Brigitte and Gottfried Fischer, who fled Vienna in 1938. The family sold it for $2.2 million at Christie’s in New York

— In 2004 The Liberation of Saint Peter from Prison, attributed to Rembrandt, was returned to the family of Arthur Feldmann, a Czech lawyer killed by the Nazis. The drawing was given voluntarily by an American woman after she realised it had been looted

— Pieter de Grebber’s Study of a Reading Man was withdrawn at Christie’s in 2008 after the Polish authorities said that the Nazis had murdered its owner, Abe Gutnajer, in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was sold for £46,100 for Mr Gutnajer’s family
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