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This is a great image of St. John the Evangelist from a middle Byzantine manuscript made by the scribe Theoktistos in 1133. It’s catalogue number 47 in Glory of Byzantium (1997).

The manuscript’s proportions are somewhat taller and narrower (22.1 x 18.1 cm) than other Gospel books, which may explain why the Evangelist is shown standing instead of seated in his author portrait. Notice, too, how the hand of God emerges from the upper left corner reminding us that this Gospel was dictated by God. The focus of this image is the intense connection between John’s eyes and God’s hand making a gesture of speech. Compare this to the image of St Matthew shown standing with his feet apart, ready to step forward. He is an active reader (and writer) of the Gospels.

What do you do when you discover an object as wonderful as this is in your art collection has a history of being stolen before you bought it? GIVE IT BACK. This is precisely what the J Paul Getty Museum is doing now that they know that the 12th-century New Testament manuscript that they bought in 1983 had been stolen from the Holy Monastery of Dionysiou, Mount Athos, over 50 years ago. The manuscript was bought by the museum as part of a much larger and well-documented collection of art, and it is currently on view at the Getty in the “Heaven and Earth” exhibition.

There is some important cultural diplomacy going on here, too. The Getty announced the return (here and here) of the manuscript on Monday, the day before the Greek Minister of Culture attended a preview of the exhibition.

It is helpful to put this decision to return the manuscript back to its monastery into context. The Getty Museum has returned many works of art back to their original locations including several antique sculptures.

A notable artifact returned from the Getty is this sculpture of Aphrodite which was returned to Italy in 2011. This page at the Smithsonian summarizes the recent wave of repatriated artifacts to Greece and Italy. It includes a list of many of the other works that have been recently sent back by other American museums such as this krater which was once in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In some ways the tension seems to be about how richly endowed American museums can’t just buy all out the cultural heritage of Old World cultures. It’s good to be reminded that we have to travel to other continents to see these artifacts; we can’t import everything to the new world. It’s a reminder for collectors to be prepared for new evidence about the objects in their collections.

For art historians, it’s a good reminder that the provenances of even some of the most well known objects may be in dispute. UNESCO’s Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws should help everyone figure out what is legal. And the Getty has taken a leadership position in this research by creating the Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance. This is an AMAZING resource! Likewise, this site gives links to many other projects dealing with provenance, especially for works made in more recent centuries.

I suppose most art historians gloss over provenance because it’s part of the larger project of making attributions. But it’s good to remember that how we identify something has so much to do with how we interpret that thing. In other words, even if I’m not an owner or collector of these objects, their histories as objects should be an essential aspect of my relationship with them.

I recently heard a story about a collector who paid somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars for a work of art that has recently been shown to be a fake. It wasn’t stolen or looted; it just wasn’t an authentic work by the artist he thought it was. And unfortunately, because of the way our legal system works, he is expected to destroy the work of art because it was a forgery. Even though this man has no intention of selling the work of art and even though he has come to terms with the fact that the painting is a forgery, he is not allowed to keep it it and privately enjoy the picture. I find these situations perplexing: why can’t he keep and enjoy the picture in the privacy of his own home? Authenticity and maintaining an artist’s oeuvre—these are the issues that matter.

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