Sacred writings returned

Manuscript: The Johns Hopkins University sends back a portion of the ninth-century Gold Koran that disappeared at least a century ago from Istanbul.

February 29, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A century or more since the manuscript disappeared from Istanbul, the Johns Hopkins University returned to the government of Turkey yesterday part of a ninth-century Koran, the holy book of Islam, written entirely in gold.

Known as the Gold Koran, the illuminated manuscript is considered by scholars to be a rare and extraordinarily beautiful example of Islamic art. The university's portion -- which has been in its library collections for nearly six decades -- includes the first 18 suras, or chapters, of the Koran. When it arrives in Turkey, it will be be reunited with the remainder of the manuscript that for centuries has been kept in Istanbul's Nuruosmaniye Library.

"Johns Hopkins acknowledges the rightful home of the Gold Koran is in the Nuruosmaniye Library in Istanbul. We are pleased to restore the manuscript to the people of Turkey," said William R. Brody, university president. "We are losing, in a sense, a child, but by reuniting it with its sister document, we are gaining another child."

In accepting the manuscript at a ceremony yesterday, the Turkish government acknowledged that the university had no role in its removal from Istanbul, which occurred after an inventory that was conducted in 1756 but was not discovered until a second inventory was completed nearly 200 years later.The university will not be compensated for the manuscript, which is valued at $2 million to $3 million.

"This is a very ethical step on the part of Johns Hopkins University. And for us, part of the very important and precious cultural heritage of Turkey is coming back home," said M. Istemihan Talay, the minister of culture. "This is a very good example for the world."

Questions of provenance

In recent years, museums and libraries have had to re-examine the provenance of their holdings as questions have arisen about the rightful ownership of objects confiscated by the Nazis in Europe, or acquired by unscrupulous dealers or researchers. Many institutions are returning objects to descendants of the original owners or to the countries of their origin, when research finds that the artifacts illegally came onto the art market.

Last year, the J. Paul Getty Museum announced that it would return to Italy three works -- including a 480 B.C. Greek terra-cotta drinking cup. The decision was made after the museum discovered that the works, which had been acquired individually through reputable sources, originally were taken illegally.

And New York's Asia Society said that it would return to India a 1,000-year-old sculpture that had been donated in 1978 by John D. Rockefeller III. Research showed that the object, which had been purchased from a London dealer, had been looted from a small museum in central India.

Other institutions have been unwilling to repatriate artworks. The British Museum has steadfastly refused to return to Greece the Elgin Marbles, which were originally part of the Parthenon.

One dispute made international headlines in 1998 when a Manhattan district attorney required the Museum of Modern Art to hold two Egon Schiele paintings on loan from Vienna's Leopold Museum. The district attorney acted at the request of the heirs of the paintings' former owners, who claimed that the Nazis illegally seized the art in the 1930s.

In anticipation of further disputes, the Association of Art Museum Dealers issued guidelines in 1998 for how museums should deal with claims that artworks were looted by the Nazis. The guidelines urge U.S. museums to review their holdings to discover whether any of the objects were illegally confiscated by the Nazis.

"We checked the collections within the last year or so apropos of the Nazi situation," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "Fortunately, the core of the collection was set by 1931, so we are much less susceptible than a lot of museums."

"We always ask that people we get gifts or purchase from to state that they have good title," says Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "We do research on items as we acquire them."

A 1942 bequest

The Johns Hopkins University acquired its portion of the Gold Koran with about 30,000 other rare books as part of a bequest made by Baltimore businessman John Work Garrett when he died in 1942. Some years later, the Garrett home -- the Evergreen House at 4545 N. Charles St. -- also was given to the university.

Garrett had purchased the manuscript from Princeton University in 1942, a few months before he died, says James G. Neal, dean of the university libraries.

Princeton, in turn, had received the book as a gift from Garrett's brother, Robert, an avid collector, who had purchased it from a dealer about 1904. Who the dealer was or how he acquired the portion of the Gold Koran is unclear, Neal says.

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