Armenian restitution claims grow

The Art Newspaper 6 April 2011
By Charlotte Burns

Getty case may be tip of the iceberg

Armenian refugees in Syria, 1915

CALIFORNIA. Legal cases relating to objects looted during the Armenian massacres (of 1915 to 1918 and 1920 to 1923) are on the rise, according to an expert panel speaking at Loyola Law School last month.

The most notable is the ongoing case brought against the Getty Museum last year by the California-based Armenian Apostolic Church. The church is suing the museum for the return of seven pages torn from a medieval Armenian Bible almost a century ago. The Getty says it bought the pages legally. “These fragments have become a powerful symbol of a heritage that has to be reclaimed, and has prompted Armenian people to reconsider that heritage,” said Heghnar Watenpaugh, an art scholar at the University of California, Davis, who was on the panel.

Los Angeles is home to the second largest community of Armenians outside of the Armenian Republic. It is estimated that 1.5m Armenians died during forced deportations and executions by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians and many others consider the Ottoman’s actions to be genocide, although the government of modern day Turkey rejects this description.

The rise in Armenian claims follows the model of Holocaust restitution claims, said fellow panellist, Michael Bazyler, a law professor at Chapman University School of Law. “With the legal precedent established by the successes of the Holocaust restitution litigation in the US, the legal landscape for filing a suit…has never been more favourable,” he said.

Last month, a case was bought against the US Federal Reserve Bank by the nonprofit Center for Armenian Remembrance, which is suing over the US acquisition of more than $8.3m-worth of Armenian gold allegedly looted by the Ottoman government in 1915. The centre says that the Turkish government deposited the assets in Germany’s Reichsbank, and that the US and other Allied powers took them as reparations after the first world war.

Bazyler says that litigation opens the doors for cases against museums for holding looted art. The Walters museum in Baltimore has 11 Armenian manuscripts including a gospel by T’oros Roslin—the same producer of the pages involved in the Getty case—which has notable gaps in its provenance between 1915 and 1929.

The Getty case looks likely to be settled out of court. A spokeswoman for the J. Paul Getty Trust said: “We are in discussions and both sides are eager for an amicable resolution.”
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