Peter Durfee has alerted me to an intriguingly unusual restitution case. Initially the story looks similar to a number of other restitution cases: It involves Japan, and a prestigious Oxford University library arguing over the ownership of a rare book dating to the sixteenth century. However, in this particular case the roles are reversed. The library at Christ Church College had held the book for many years. In 1995 the book was stolen from their collection – to be purchased soon afterwards by the Nippon Dental University in Japan. Japanese law states that stolen items purchased unwittingly only need to be returned within two years of the purchase. As more than ten years have now past, the Japanese library believes that they are under no legal obligation to return the book. Moreover, it appears that they have no intention of returning it.
Perhaps most interesting though are some of the comments from those on the British side in this case – A librarian suggests “Any institution that knowingly keeps stolen property must forfeit its place in the international scholarly community.”. Even the British Library statement echoes similar sentiments “Christ Church has my full sympathy. I share its view that whether or not there is a legal case, there is a clear moral case.”. One wonders why various British institutions are so happy to apply this (logical) line of reasoning when the cases involve items lost from fellow libraries & museums in Britain, but have so much difficulty in applying it they are on the opposite side of the argument (for examples see Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes, Rosetta Stone, Sphinx’s Beard etc…).
The Oxford Student
Christ Church locked in cross-continental dispute with Japan over stolen 16th century rare book
By Samira Shackle
Oxford University has become embroiled in a bitter argument with the most unlikely of foes. The Nikkon Dental University is refusing to return a rare 16th Century book which was stolen from Christ Church over ten years ago. The book, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrice’ by Andrea Vesalius, was stolen from Christ Church along with seventy-three other books by music lecturer, Simon Heighes, in 1995.
Over the next eight years, seventy- three of these were located and recovered by the college, but Vesalius’ work, on the topic of human anatomy, has not been returned. It was sold to the Nippon Dental University in Japan and is currently on display in their Museum of Medicine and Dentistry. However, despite repeated appeals by Oxford for its return, Nippon is refusing to negotiate it.
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