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September 23, 2015

Details on the Getty and Armenian Church Agreement Over Stolen Bible Pages

Image Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum
In June 2010 the La Crescenta-based Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, filed a $105-million lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Through attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan,  the church's filing claimed that the museum illegally purchased eight detached illustrated pages that were once part of a 750 year old sacred Bible, that had been stolen from its rightful owner, the Catholicosate of Cilicia, during the gravest days of the Armenian Genocide sometime between 1915-1923.

The illustrations, known collectively as the Zet’un Gospels Canon Tables, were loaned anonymously by Gil Atamian to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York for their exhibition "Treasures in Heaven : Armenian illuminated manuscripts" in 1994 and were acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, for an undisclosed sum from the same collector, the same year. Gil Atamian is said to have inherited the Canon Tables upon the death of his uncle, Nazareth Atamian in 1980, who in turn had acquired them from his father Melkon Atamian who brought them with him when he emigrated to the United States.

The Zet’un Gospels, of which the Canon Tables are part, were made in 1256 in the scriptorium of Hṙomkla for the Armenian High Patriarch, or Catholicos, Constantine I by T’oros Roslin, an Armenian manuscript illuminator during the High Middle Ages. This illuminated manuscript is one of only seven known manuscripts to have been preserved that bear the accomplished illustrator's signature. Aside from the Canon Table pages, the remaining portion of the Zet'un Gospels form part of the extensive collection at the Matenadaran's Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia.

Prior to its disappearance, the Zet'un Gospels had once been housed at the Church in Zeyt’un in eastern Anatolia, what is now also called Süleymanli, Turkey.  The sacred manuscript was believed to symbolically provide the city's Armenian citizens with protection and was exhibited in the Zeyt'un streets during times of unrest.  Unfortunately, in World War I most of the city's inhabitants were ultimately deported and largely exterminated during the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians.

Despite being caught in the vagaries of art provenance during war, the Getty Museum has always maintained that it purchased the Canon Tables legally stating in their answer to the complaint that sometime prior to the early 1920s, the Zet'un Gospels had become the property of Melkon Atamian who, like many Armenians during that period had emigrated to the United States in 1923 and eventually settling in Massachusetts.

The Armenian Bar Association in its Winter 2015 newsletter states that a Turkish man found
the Zeytun Gospels and brought them to Melkon Atamian in Marash for him to sell,   The article states that Atamian cut away eight folios or sixteen pages bearing the Canon Tables and returned the manuscript to the Turkish individual stating that he did not want to handle it.

Court documents filed by the J. Paul Getty Museum collaborate that Melkon Atamian himself removed the Gospel’s Canon Tables from the manuscript but differ in whom he returned the remainder of the manuscript to, stating that he entrusted the remainder of the Gospel to an American missionary by the name of "Lyman".

Examined records researched in relation to the case state that somewhere around 1928 a Dr. Liman (or Lyme or Lyman) reportedly sent word to the "Zeyt’im Companiotio Union" in Aleppo, informing them that he was in possession of the "Zeyt‘un Bible" in Marash and was ready to transfer the text to them. Through a series of complicated passages in or about 1947-1948, Catholicos Karekin who served as the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church sent the Zeyt’un Gospel to Dr. H. Der Ghazarian in Aleppo to authenticate its provenance.   The Bible - once authenticated was then sent back to the Catholicosate noting that it was minus the illustrated Canon Table pages.

It is interesting to note that the Catholicosate documentation regarding the Zeyt‘un Bible speaks of the missing pages, but makes no mention of Melkon Atamian, "the unnamed Turk" or to whom Dr. Liman, Lyme, Lyman obtained the manuscript from or under what circumstances.  Records note only that the pages had been ripped from the manuscript or stolen from it and that no culprit was ever identified.

The J. Paul Getty page highlighting the Canon Tables which can be viewed here makes no mention of the documents contested collection history.

That being said a settlement between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America has been reached and announced with much fanfare on Monday September 21, 2015.

Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum stated in part

"the Getty acknowledges the Armenian Apostolic Church’s ownership of the eight 13th Century manuscript pages. “That the pages were saved from destruction and conserved in a museum all these years means that these irreplaceable representations of Armenia’s rich artistic heritage have been and will be preserved for future generations,”

While the agreement acknowledges the Church’s historical ownership of the Canon Tables, the Armenian Apostolic Church has agreed to donate the pages to the Getty Museum in order to ensure their preservation and widespread exhibition.  In a carefully worded joint statement the Church gives recognition to the Getty’s decades-long stewardship of the Canon Tables and its deep understanding and appreciation of Armenian art.

The agreement between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America can be read in its entirety here.

By Lynda Albertson