In 2008, Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan sold three Greek-language manuscripts from the 16th and 17th centuries to an antiquities dealer who returned them two years later after concluding they might have been looted.
The dealer was reimbursed but the auction house, its officials said, was unable to reach the person who had consigned the items. So they sat on a shelf for more than a decade, all but lost in the shuffle of daily operations.
Three months ago, though, the manuscripts were resurfaced when Swann’s chief financial officer went through his office before a renovation. There on a shelf in a long-forgotten plastic bag were the manuscripts, which are believed to have been stolen from a Greek monastery in the midst of World War I.
They are thought to have been lost in 1917 when Bulgarian combatants are said to have plundered nearly 900 items from the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery, often called Kosinitza, in northern Greece.
The manuscripts will be sent back to the monastery, and their return is to be commemorated on Friday in a repatriation ceremony in Lower Manhattan. After the ceremony, arranged by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Elpidophoros of America is planning to travel to Istanbul to deliver the manuscripts to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. From there, the items will go back to Kosinitza.
“It is a blessing for the monastic sisterhood at the monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa to see the contents of their former library slowly being returned to them,” Archbishop Elpidophoros said in a statement. He said the church hoped that other organizations with stolen manuscripts from the monastery would also return them.
The sweeping scale of systematic looting during World War II by Nazi forces tends to overshadow the fact that artworks were routinely plundered during other conflicts. Roman generals, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte were known to have looted artworks during military campaigns, said Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer who specializes in art and cultural heritage law and who has been serving as a consultant for lawyers seeking the return of documents they say were taken from the monastery.
But while some looting efforts are carried out in an organized fashion on behalf of an empire and its aspirations, Amineddoleh said the turmoil of war also provides cover for thefts by fighters who act on their own, not on orders.
“Sometimes looting is done nation to nation,” he said. “Sometimes it’s done by individuals as a crime of opportunity.”
The plundering of Kosinitza would appear to fall into the second category. The monastery was founded in about the fifth century, and by the 18th century was said to have a collection of some 1,300 volumes, an Eastern Orthodox Church official wrote in a letter in 2015. The official added that the monastery was attacked in 1917 by “ marauding Bulgarian guerilla forces” who sacked its library.
Four days after the attack, a letter from a local official to the Greek Foreign Affairs Delegation of Sofia said that about 60 bandits had entered the monastery, assaulted men there and used 24 mules to cart off their spoils.
After being rediscovered recently at Swann, the yellowed manuscripts made their way to the desk of Devon Eastland, a senior specialist in early printed books at the auction house.
One, titled “Commemoration List of the Venerable and Patriarchal Monastery of Our Most Glorious Lady and Mother of God, of Kosinitsa,” contains a list of former monks at the monastery and people who had donated to the monastery — names that would be included by a priest in a special prayer after a liturgy. Another document included signatures of monastery officials.
“I wanted to find out where the manuscripts should go,” Eastland said recently during a phone interview. “If they were stolen, they needed to go back to the people they were taken from.”
His task was made easier, Eastland said, by research notes that the antiquities dealer had sent, saying that writing within the manuscripts identified their source as Kosinitza. After reading the notes, Eastland wrote to George Tsougarakis, general counsel for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, telling him about the manuscripts.
Tsougarakis, while in private practice, had sued Princeton University in 2018 on behalf of the monastery, saying a collection at the school included manuscripts plundered from Kosinitza. The university respondents that it was confident that its provenance research had established the manuscripts were not looted. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Over the past several years, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago have returned items that could be traced to the 1917 thefts from Kosinitza. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York said in 2021 that it had agreed to an extended loan to the monastery of a 12th-century manuscript that it had received through a donation in 1926 and which the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople said had been looted.