By Colin Moynihan – nytimes.com
They are simultaneously sacred texts and works of art, three illuminated Byzantine-era manuscripts that are more than 1,000 years old and that for decades have been part of a heralded collection at Princeton University.
The college received the items as a gift in 1942 from a trustee and alumnus who had bought them from a German auction house nearly 20 years earlier.
But in a lawsuit filed Thursday, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church said the manuscripts were stolen and demanded their return, asserting that they had been taken during World War I from a monastery in Kormista, a village in northern Greece.
The plaintiffs in the federal suit filed in New Jersey, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, say that Bulgarian guerrilla forces stormed the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Monastery in 1917, assaulted the monks who lived there and made off with a trove of ancient texts.
Among the evidence cited in the lawsuit is a volume, “Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century: A Descriptive Catalogue,” which was published in 2010 and identifies some manuscripts in the school’s collection as having been removed from the monastery in 1917 by Bulgarian authorities.
“This is Princeton’s book, issued by the Princeton press, about Princeton’s collection, written by Princeton employees,” said George A. Tsougarakis, a lawyer for Hughes Hubbard & Reed in New York, which represents the patriarch, the monastery and regional church officials in the case. “In our view that’s about as concrete an admission as you could get.”
The university said in a statement Friday that it had full confidence that the provenance research it has done establishes that the manuscripts were not looted.
“Based on the information available to us, we have found no basis to conclude that the manuscripts in our possession were looted during World War I or otherwise improperly removed from the possession of the patriarchate,” a university spokesman, Michael Hotchkiss, said in an email.
The Byzantine-era manuscripts sought by the plaintiffs are St. John Chrysostom’s “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” written in A.D. 955 by the scribe Nikephoros the Notary; St. John Climacus’s “Heavenly Ladder” written in A.D. 1081 in Constantinople by the scribe Joseph; and pages from the ninth century that were probably part of “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew” that may have been rebound at some point to “Heavenly Ladder.”
In addition, the plaintiffs are asking for the return of a 16th-century version of “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” which they said was also stolen by the Bulgarian forces in 1917 and bought by Princeton in 1921.
The patriarchate first asked for the return of five manuscripts held by Princeton in a letter in 2015 that called them “indelible and invaluable pieces of Byzantine culture” and “hallowed writings that are still cherished and revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church and its faithful.”
The school said in response at the time that two of the manuscripts then sought had been given as gifts before 1917 to a second monastery, which later sold them. Church officials are no longer seeking the return of those manuscripts while continuing to pursue others.
Princeton argued in a letter last year that none of the manuscripts sought by church officials were listed in an inventory compiled at the time of the raid by Vladimir Sis, who was said to have overseen the transport of the items to Bulgaria. The school said the catalog cited by the church contains “broad sweeping references” and “might merit a second edition, revised to reflect findings from the Sis inventory.”
The Rev. Alex Karloutsos, a New-York-based assistant to the ecumenical patriarch, said that before the manuscripts were stolen they had been in active use in the monastery, where monks would light candles and incense and read from them during meals and religious services.
“They’re part of sacred history, and that’s our spiritual and cultural identity,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that the loss of the manuscripts and the efforts to recover them had been “very painful.”
The monastery was founded in the fifth century and is one of the oldest in the Greek region of Macedonia. Before the raid, it had become the home of what the lawsuit described as “a remarkable collection of books, relics and valuable Byzantine manuscripts.”
The visit by the Bulgarian forces was described four days after it occurred in a letter from a local official to the Greek Foreign Affairs Delegation of Sofia.
The letter, which was written in French, said that “a gang of 60 criminals” forcibly entered the monastery and mercilessly beat two men to force them to divulge where the precious objects of the monastery were kept. The raiders then gathered manuscripts, printed books and other items including gold florins, the letter said.
“The bandits, after picking up all the prizes at the monastery, loaded their booty on 24 mules, which they had brought with them for this purpose, and left without having been disturbed by anyone,” the official, N. Bacopoulos, wrote.
The stolen manuscripts were taken to Sofia, where they were distributed to dealers, book sellers and auction houses across Central Europe, the lawsuit said. The four manuscripts that Princeton has were said to have come from the Frankfurt-based auction house Joseph Baer & Co.
Father Karloutsos said that the plaintiffs were in discussions with Duke University and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York about the return of additional manuscripts that he said had also been pilfered during the 1917 raid.
Officials at Duke declined to comment. Noreen Khalid Ahmad, a spokeswoman for the Morgan Library & Museum, said in an email: “Over the last several months, we have been engaged in thoughtful and respectful dialogue with the monastery regarding the manuscript and have proposed a solution to the patriarch’s counsel that we hope will resolve the issue.”
Eastern Orthodox officials said that in 2016 the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago returned a 337-page edition of New Testament written in the ninth century by a monk named Sabas, also because of concerns it had been stolen by the Bulgarian forces.