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Benevento Missal returns to its rightful owners

Perhaps the end of the long running story of the return of the Benevento Missal [1]. Initially something that was not legally possible, but that was later allowed by changes to the law on restitution of artefacts looted during the Nazi era.

Daily Telegraph [2]

British Library returns 900-year-old religious manuscript to Italy
By Nick Squires, Rome
5:01PM GMT 07 Feb 2011

A 900-year-old religious manuscript which was looted in Italy during the Second World War has been returned by the British Library to its rightful owners in the southern Italian town of Benevento after a decade-long legal battle.

A British lawyer who acted for the archdiocese of Benevento, handed back the manuscript personally. The codex was written on parchment around 1100.

“The return of the missal had become highly symbolic for Benevento and its cathedral, so they were absolutely delighted to have it back,” Jeremy Scott, the lawyer, said.

“It was a tremendously emotional event. It will now be kept in the chapter library, attached to the cathedral, which was rebuilt after the very bad damage it sustained during the war.”

The early 12th century liturgical book is the first item to be returned by a British institution since the UK adopted a law regarding the looting of cultural treasures during the Nazi era, from Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933 to the end of the war in 1945.

The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act enabled the Beneventan Missal to be returned to the town of Benevento, near Naples, 66 years after it left Italian soil.

Its medieval cathedral was all but destroyed during heavy bombing raids of Naples by British and American aircraft in 1943, prior to the Allied landings at Salerno.

Two-thirds of Benevento was reduced to rubble and amid the chaos, as the Germans retreated north and the Allies pushed up from the south, the 290-page codex went missing.

It is assumed to have been looted, but it is not known whether it was stolen by a German soldier, a member of the Allied armies or an Italian soldier or civilian.

It turned up in a second-hand book shop in Naples in early 1944, where it was bought by a British officer, Capt Douglas Ash of the Intelligence Corps, who was told by the owner of the shop that it was “molto antico” – very old.

On his return home he offered it for sale at Sotheby’s. It was bought by the British Museum for £420, before being transferred to the British Library in 1973.

The archdiocese of Benevento asked for it to be returned a decade ago, but the British Library refused the request.

It was compelled to change its stance after a ruling was made in favour of the Italians in 2005 by the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a group of experts set up a decade ago to advise the British government on the theft of cultural property by the Nazis.

British museums need not worry that the return of the manuscript will open up the floodgates to similar claims from around the world, Mr Scott said.

“It’s not going to be an Elgin Marbles-style test case because it was restored under an act which pertains only to items lost during the Nazi era.”

The missal is written in a rare script known as Beneventan, which was prevalent in southern Italy for about 500 years.