The Benevento Missal will be the first item of Nazi-era loot from a UK national museum to be restituted to its pre-war owner. It will be received by the archbishop of Benevento, Andrea Mugione, on 11 November, during a symposium on medieval literature.
For the Italian city, the UK’s decision to return the 12th-century missal has a symbolic significance, since its cathedral was destroyed by British bombs during the second world war. UK national museums (which include the British Library) were not allowed to deaccession, so the restitution had to await a change in the law, which came into effect this year. For The Art Newspaper, it is the final chapter in a story which we initiated over a decade ago.
It began in February 2000, when UK museums published lists of works which had an uncertain provenance for the Nazi era (1933-45). Among hundreds of items, one caught my eye: a missal in the British Library from Benevento cathedral library, “removed at some time before 1944”. The manuscript had been bought that year from a Naples bookdealer by Captain D.G. Ash, who sold it at Sotheby’s in 1946, when it went to the British Library.
My curiosity aroused, I met two British Library curators in April 2000. They openly told me that Benevento had filed a legal claim in 1978. This was rejected because of the UK’s statute of limitations.
A few months later I was off to Benevento, near Naples. On 1 November 2000 I met Archbishop Serafino Sprovieri, who told me about the failed 1978 claim. I responded that the UK government was adopting a new policy on Nazi-era claims and a Spoliation Advisory Panel had been set up.
Chapter librarian Lauro Maio took me to the antiquated metal cupboard which housed the cathedral’s most precious manuscripts. The volumes were in numerical order, and he pointed to a gap for number 29—the missal in London. I asked about documentation on the collection during the war, and a rare copy of a 1940 pamphlet was tracked down, which mentioned the missal. This publication later played a key role in the claim, as it meant the missal had gone missing post-1940.
I asked whether there was anyone alive who had worked at the cathedral during the war. A call went out to Giovanni Giordano, then 79, who had safely moved the manuscripts in a handcart after the devastating bombings of 13/14 September 1943. (Giordano died in 2003.)
The archbishop arranged a visit to the local police academy, where the manuscripts had been stored. The police commissioner showed us the attic storeroom.
By early afternoon the group investigating the case had grown to nearly a dozen. The archbishop announced it was time for a meal, and our cavalcade set off to his favourite restaurant. Following lunch, he ordered a bottle of a local sweet liqueur for me to take back to London.
I left Benevento feeling that the missal claim should be pursued. So many of its buildings and treasures were destroyed by British bombs. Among the wartime chaos, one of the cathedral’s greatest manuscripts had been improperly taken and ended up in London. Returning the missal seemed a symbolic gesture to help heal the wounds.
Back home, I went to the British Library and leafed through the three-inch-thick vellum missal in its Beneventan script. Library records suggested that it had been consulted less than once a year in London. Although there are few scholars of Beneventan writing, for them this is a rare treasure.
We ran two reports on the Benevento Missal in The Art Newspaper (July-August 2000, pp1,5 and January 2001, p9). The archbishop held discussions with Mario Bondioli Osio, who was in charge of the Italian government’s commission on the recovery of artworks. Bondioli Osio then contacted London lawyer Jeremy Scott, from the firm of Withers. Scott agreed to take on the case, without charging.
Scott then began to assemble a claim, which the cathedral chapter submitted to the Spoliation Advisory Panel in November 2002. The Art Newspaper’s role was over, and it was up to the panel to adjudicate. On 23 March 2005 the panel recommended that the missal should be returned.
Legal restrictions made it impossible for the British Library to deaccession the manuscript, so until the law was changed the missal could only be returned on loan. The British Library accepted this, providing Benevento met its normal security and environmental requirements. This proved impossible and the idea of lending the missal to the national library in Naples also failed.
Then came a change in UK law. Andrew Dismore MP proposed a private member’s bill on the Holocaust, which came into effect last January. Scott submitted a new claim to the panel. On 15 September the panel again recommended the missal should be returned.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How The Art Newspaper changed the law'