Getty loses bid to dismiss art-restitution lawsuit

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is squaring off against the Armenian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and on Thursday the church won the first important procedural round in its bid to reclaim eight prized medieval manuscripts (a detail is pictured above) it contends were stolen goods when the Getty bought them for $950,000 in 1994.

The Getty tried to have the suit dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds, arguing that church officials were aware of the manuscripts’ whereabouts by 1952 and should have sued at that time, when they were owned by an Armenian-American family in Massachusetts -- the heirs of a man who had brought them out of the province of Cilicia as the Ottoman Turks were expelling the province’s Armenian population during the World War I-era Armenian genocide.


Superior Court Judge Abraham Khan denied the Getty’s motion, saying that it was ‘not clear’ that church officials knew what the Getty says they knew when it says they knew it. He said the statute-of-limitations law could come into play in a future hearing but that he would want to hear evidence about the complicated path the 755-year-old pages took starting in 1916, when they were separated from a larger bible known as the Zeyt’un Gospels.

The Getty’s pages are lavishly illustrated Canon Tables -– citations of parallel verses from the four New Testament gospels, which served as a kind of frontispiece for the bible created in 1256 by T’oros Roslin, considered the greatest Armenian manuscript illuminator.

The church aims to make the Zeyt’un Gospels whole again by winning back the missing pages from the Getty and sending them to the Matenadaran, a major manuscript museum in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, which has housed the rest of the Zeyt’un Gospels since the late 1960s.

Here’s the full storyabout the decision. It includes a rarity in the controversy-shy, ultra-cautious art-museum world: Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University in Minnesota and a Benedictine monk, is openly calling on the Getty to repatriate a contested masterpiece. Stewart says the issue shouldn’t be decided by legalities, but by the ethical imperative of turning a fragmented artwork into one that’s whole.

Under a California law that was passed last year and pertains solely to allegedly stolen artworks owned by museums or art dealers, plaintiffs have six years to sue after they discover a missing work’s whereabouts. The Getty says the clock has long since run out because the owner, the Lebanon-based branch of the Armenian Orthodox Church known as the Holy See of Cilicia, knew where the missing pages were by mid-century. Attorneys for the church dispute that, saying that the church didn’t even realize until 2006 that the bible housed in Yerevan was missing its front pages.

The new law greatly relaxes the statute of limitations, which had started the clock running not when victimized former owners actually knew where their allegedly stolen art was, but at the time when they should have known if they were being reasonably vigilant about tracking down what they’d lost.

Under the old standard, the clock (which at the time called for a three-year deadline rather than six years) might well have begun running in 1994. That’s when the Zeyt’un Gospels pages were loaned anonymously to an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The Getty bought them the same year.

In its motion to dismiss the suit, which Khan denied, the Getty also contended that the new statute-of-limitations law is unconstitutional because it singles out museums and art dealers and does not include private owners of art. Arguing that displaying art is a form of free speech protected under the 1st Amendment, the Getty said the new law improperly penalizes museums and galleries for exercising their free-speech rights.

Countering in court pleadings, the church’s attorneys wrote that ‘exhibiting stolen property is not protected under the First Amendment,’ and argued that the California Legislature legitimately can hold museums and art delears to a higher standard than the general public when it comes to possession of stolen artworks. The judge said the constitutional argument didn’t need to be addressed in his ruling Thursday.


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-- Mike Boehm