Protesters call on Getty to relinquish medieval manuscripts

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About 30 protesters on Saturday called on the Getty Museum to return seven ornate pages from a sacred, medieval-era Armenian book considered to be a national treasure.

The protesters gathered outside the gates of the museum Saturday holding signs that read "Shame on Getty" and  “Our history is not for sale" as Armenian church officials attempt to secure the pages, which they say were illegally obtained by the museum nearly two decades ago.

“It is a piece of culture taken away from us. It is a piece of our identity. It is a piece of our past,” said Glendale resident Rita Mahdessian.

The La Crescenta-based Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a $105-million lawsuit  against the J. Paul Getty Trust in June 2010 alleging the museum illegally bought seven pages ripped from the Zeyt’un Gospels, a sacred manuscript that dates back to 1256 A.D.

Attorneys for the museum had sought to have the lawsuit thrown out, arguing the deadline to file had passed decades ago under statute of limitations, but earlier this month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Abraham Khan denied the motion and ordered four months of mediation.

In a statement, Getty spokeswoman Julie Jaskol said that while the museum respects the right to protest, the the demonstration appeared to run counter to what Khan had asked for.

“It’s unfortunate that this demonstration, organized by the lawyer who is suing the Getty, seems to violate the spirit of the court-ordered mediation,” Jaskol said in a statement.

The attorney, Vartkes Yeghiayan, said he’s willing to mediate, but prior efforts with the museum have failed in the past, prompting the legal action. The Armenian Apostolic Church wants the Getty to return the pages so they can be reunited with the rest of the manuscript housed in the Armenian capitol of Yerevan.

“These are the orphans. We want them to join the family,” Yeghiayan said, adding that the plaintiffs may be willing to let the Getty exhibit the sacred book in the future so long as the church is considered the official owner of the missing pages, known as Canon Tables.

The Getty bought the pages in 1994 from a private collection for $950,000. Prior to the purchase, the museum had the work reviewed. The church claims the previous owner was the heir of the man who allegedly stole the pages in 1916 when the Turks expelled Armenians from an area of the Ottoman Empire now part of Turkey.

Jaskol said the Getty is confident it holds title to the works. 

The Zeyt’un Gospels is the earliest signed work of T’oros Roslin, an accomplished Armenian illuminator and scribe from the 13th century.  According to the lawsuit, people paraded the gospels through the streets to “to create a divine firewall of protection” during the Turkish invasion.

The legal battle over the sacred book has become an emotional symbol for the Armenian community here and abroad, where media has latched onto the story.

Demonstrators said that through events like the protest on Saturday, they hoped to generate public interest in the issue stateside.

“If we can get 10 people’s attention of what the Getty has been doing, that’s enough,” said Karine Ghapgharan, a protester from Glendale.

While protesters held copies of the colorful manuscripts pasted to poster boards at the museum’s gate, visitors viewed two of the framed pages featuring pillars, birds, flowers and palm trees in an exhibit called “In the Beginning was the Word: Medieval Gospel Illumination.”

Several at the exhibit, which runs through Nov. 27, said they were unaware of the tussle. Some sympathized with the protesters, but others, including Ruby Rios of Los Angeles, said the pages deserve to be on display for thousands to see.

“If the museum didn’t have this, people couldn’t learn about this other culture," she said.

-- Brittany Levine, Times Community News

Twitter: @brittanylevine

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