Moral Considerations in the Art-Restitution Lawsuit Between the Armenian Church and the Getty Museum

The Getty Museum


On Nov. 4, a Los Angeles Times article, written by Mike Boehm, reported that in an effort to get back the Canon Tables of the 13th-century Zeyt’un Gospels from the Getty Museum, the Armenian Diaspora has inaudibly put its weight behind the Armenian Orthodox Church’s quest to repatriate the allegedly stolen illuminated manuscripts back to Armenia, where the rest is housed at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts.

In 1915, as Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign by the Ottoman Empire, the intact codex changed hands for safekeeping. The eight pages that were torn from the larger codex during the Armenian Genocide ultimately resurfaced with an Armenian American immigrant family in Massachusetts, which sold them to the Getty in 1994.

Church attorneys were initially asked by the Getty to come up with solutions, and no less than 16 were put forth, only to be rejected by the Getty. Clearly the content of a proposal for a solution is a critical component to any successful resolution of conflict, but equally necessary is the timing of the efforts. Resolution can only be achieved if the parties are sincere in negotiating.

One wonders whether the Getty was ready and sincere when it asked church attorneys to come up with solutions. However, for the sake of being aware of our cognitive biases, we should also question whether both parties were engaging in positional bargaining, a negotiation strategy that involves holding on to a position, rather than interest-based bargaining in which parties collaborate to find a “win-win” solution to their dispute.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 3, 2011 a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied the museum’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim that the Canon Tables are “wrongfully in the possession, custody and control” of the J. Paul Getty Trust, in the Getty Museum. Instead, the judge ordered the parties to four months of mediation, scheduling a March 2 resumption if the case isn’t settled. Citing that it was “not clear” whether the case would fall within statute-of-limitations law, perhaps the judge’s ruling may create the necessary conditions for the dispute to be ripe, and both will perceive that there is a suitable way out.

With a murky history and 90 years later, one cannot rule out the Getty’s possible legal possession and title to the disputed manuscripts. Simultaneously, the Getty’s concern in the preservation of world artistic heritage should not confine itself to considering just the legal entitlement. In mediation, where context is pivotal, there is an ethical obligation that rests on the mu­seum taking into account the moral strength of the church’s case based on the circum­stances during times of turmoil. Now is the time for the museum to exhibit consistency with its own core ethical values while also demonstrating sensitivity to the sacred values of the Armenian nation in its quest for restorative justice.

For the mediation to be successful, both must enter into it willingly and away from a zero-sum mindset, through a cooperative approach. The potential benefits of mediation will outweigh the steep cost of litigation, but more importantly, the long-term outcome will be a healed and expanded relationship between the two. This may open the path for a joint restoration project where both can take part in repairing the lost gleam of the larger Zeyt’un Gospels and have them showcased with other extraordinary works of Armenian art from the vaults of the church.

Michael Toumayan is an independent political commentator on the Caucasus and Middle East affairs. He holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation from Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel.


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  1. Stepan said:

    As an Armenian I would love to see these manuscripts returned to Armenia, and I hope Getty Museum and the Armenian Church do come up with a solution.

    But I am facinated to understand why nowhere in this storey the role of the Armenian American family that sold ancient national treasure to Getty’s for a handsome profit I am sure is not discussed.

    Surley the Armenian family’s role in selling the mansuripts should be investigated, as an Armenian I am shocked that these so called Armenians who profited from the transaction are not being held accountable.

    Getty’s as a museum purchases objects of interest from many sources, and in this case the actions of the seller and the purchaser who engaged in a transaction knowing that the items in question belonged to the Armenian Church must be scrutinized. But I am far more angry at the immigarant Armenian family who knowingly sold the mauscripts for a profit.

    Amoot Irenc.

  2. Albert Nercessian said:

    The right thing would be for the Armenian Church to be given ownership of these manuscripts because they were stolen but for the manucripts to be kept at the Getty Museum for display because this allows the world to see these manuscripts showing the glory of ancient Christian Armenia as a leader in Christandom and as a great ancient land. The more the world appreciates this, the better this is.


  3. Albert Nercessian said:

    The Jews always make a great effort to show their glorious past so why should the Armenians not do the same.They always announce archeological discoveries to highlight their long history.