TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The library at Princeton University boasts some of the rarest and most obscure religious manuscripts in the world.
According to a federal complaint filed Thursday by the Eastern Orthodox Church, it also houses four holy texts from the Byzantine era that were looted from a small monastery during World War I.
The manuscripts — Garrett MS. 14, Garrett MS. 16, Garrett MS. 16A and Princeton MS. 81 — were written from 955 A.D. to the 16th century, and focus on Saint John Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.
For nearly four centuries, the texts were kept at the Monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa,
tucked away in a mountainous area of northern Greece near the city of Drama.
But the monastery, which filed Thursday’s suit in New Jersey with Archbishop Bartholomew I, says they disappeared in 1917 when Bulgarian guerrillas who stormed the holy site, only to turn up a few years later at the auction house Joseph Baer & Co. in Frankfurt, Germany.
The monastery says Princeton bought MS. 81 itself in 1921 and was bequeathed the other three by Princeton trustee Robert Garrett who bought them at the Baer auction house in 1924.
“Because the manuscripts were stolen, Princeton was unable to, and never did, acquire good title or any interest in the manuscripts,” the 15-page complaint states.
The Eastern Orthodox Church claims “clear evidence” shows the manuscripts had been housed at the monastery prior to 1917. The suit claims notes the manuscripts were listed in an old catalogue from a 19th century Greek Literature Club, and that Princeton’s own catalogue notes one of the manuscripts was written at the Greek monastery.
“We are doing this to right a wrong that was committed over 100 years ago,” said George Tsougarakis, an attorney with Hughes Hubbard & Reed who is working on the case for the church pro bono.
In an exhibit to its lawsuit, the church included a demand letter sent to Princeton in 2015 seeking the return of the manuscripts.
Tsougarakis said Princeton’s objections rely on dubious evidence — including the fact that the leader of the Bulgarian guerrillas did not include the manuscripts in an inventory he prepared after his arrest.
“It is not likely that any manuscript of such religious significance leaves a monastery to go into private hands,” Tsougarakis said in an interview. “It is very rare for a private collector to come into a monastery and buy something.”
Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections includes a number of religious manuscripts, some dating back more than 1,000 years. The Robert Garrett collection there houses primarily Islamic and Christian manuscripts.
The university has been accused of holding stolen property before. In 2007 the school’s art museum agreed to turn over to Italy 15 ancient Greek and Roman works of art. More recently, a collection of unpublished letters by the poet W.B. Yeats were identified by an editor while he perused the school’s catalogue.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has also sought the return of similar manuscripts from Duke University and the Morgan Library in New York City. In June, the Order of Saint Andrew issued a statement calling on the three institutions to turn over allegedly stolen manuscripts.
Tsougarakis said no lawsuit has yet been filed against Duke or the Morgan Library. He also claimed that Bulgaria possesses a large collection of stolen manuscripts from the Eastern Orthodox Church but will not return them either. The church may look to the International Court of Human Rights for relief on those manuscripts, he said.
Princeton University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss declined to comment directly on the lawsuit. He said in a statement, however, that the university has reviewed the origin of the four manuscripts and disputes they were improperly acquired.
“Based on the information available to us, we have found no basis to conclude that the manuscripts in our possession were looted during World War I or otherwise improperly removed from the possession of the Patriarchate,” Hotchkiss said in the statement.
“Princeton University is committed to ensuring that all of our manuscripts and other holdings have been properly acquired,” he added.
Tsougarakis noted that the complaint includes an alternative request for damages, but that his clients are willing to waive that. “What we want is a return of the manuscripts,” he said.