May 25, 2006

Oxford University’s argument with Japan over stolen book

Posted at 12:55 pm in Similar cases

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.

The Christ Church Head Librarian told The Oxford Student, “It’s the library’s book and we’d like to get it back.” Japanese law states that a stolen item unwittingly bought must only be returned within two years of the purchase. As over 10 years have now passed, the University is not bound by law to return the book to Oxford.

Dean of Christ Church Christopher Lewis said, “It took well over two years to track down the book because all the dealers along the way were so reluctant to talk to us. “The law may not be on our side but we have a moral case, which is that it was stolen and it deserves to be brought back to its rightful place. It’s not their fault, they bought it in good faith. But the fact is that the book is an essential part of a collection that brings to Christ Church.

The Director of the University’s Japan Office, David Morris, has been engaged in correspondence requesting the return of the book for several years. This culminated in a letter sent last November that read, “It is only your institution that stubbornly refuses to address this extremely important moral issue. You must understand that this problem will not disappear; Oxford University will not rest until [the] property stolen, now in your possession, is returned.

Fumihiro Ohi, the Tokyo book dealer who arranged the sale of the book, told a Japanese newspaper in 2003, “I’d love to resolve the problem, but I don’t like the way Oxford has treated me. They treat me as if I am a criminal.” The Nippon Dental University’s refusal to return the book has brought them under fire from other academic institutions, which are rallying in support of Oxford.

The librarian and archivist of Lambeth Palace, Richard Palmer, told the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), “Any institution that knowingly keeps stolen property must forfeit its place in the international scholarly community.” Kristian Jensen, head of British and Early Printed Collections at the British Library told the THES, “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.

Since the thefts, Christ Church has begun re-cataloguing its library, a job that is still in progress. Visitors are no longer permitted access to the old books stored on the upper level without supervision, partly in response to the 1995 thefts.

18th May 2006

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