World Trade Center Shrine Hosts Repatriation for Centuries-Old Manuscripts
A century-old crime committed almost 5,000 miles from Lower Manhattan was recompensed at a ceremony held here in April. In 1917, Bulgaria sought to exploit the chaos of World War One by seizing territory in the mountains of northeastern Greece. These mountains were home to several Greek Orthodox monasteries, the libraries of which contained priceless, hand-lettered manuscripts dating from the 1500s.
Behind the advancing Bulgarian troops came adventurers such as Vladimir Sis, a Czech journalist who impersonated an archaeologist in order to gain access to Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Monastery, so that he could take reconnoiter the treasures it held. A few weeks later, Sis returned with a band of dozens of armed men, who forced their way inside and beat several monks until they divulged the location of everything of value within the complex. The gang carted off so much loot (more than 900 manuscripts and artifacts) that it took two dozen mules to carry it all away.
Much of that stolen treasure has been lost to history, although fragments of the haul have been sporadically tracked to universities and museum collections, art galleries and antiquities dealers. A case in point of such a discovery was recently made by Swann Auction Galleries, which sold three Greek manuscripts to a dealer in 2008, but then accepted them back when the customer came to believe they had been stolen. Swann employees were unable to trace the pieces back to any prior owner, and held them in storage for more than 15 years. When the manuscripts were rediscovered in the firm’s archive, Swann enlisted the aid of the Greek Archdiocese of America (based in New York) to trace the provenance and rightful possession of the manuscripts.
Scholars on the staff of the Greek Orthodox Church were able to identify the pieces as part of the patrimony plundered from the Eikosiphoinissa Monastery in 1917. This led to an April 28 ceremony at the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, in the World Trade Center complex.
Archbishop Elpidophoros, the prelate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, said, “today, I rejoice… as we receive, in this transmission of manuscripts, an extraordinary example of honesty and responsibility.”
“I wish to express my deepest appreciation,” he added, “in seeing these precious manuscripts returned to their rightful institution, Eikosiphoinissa. I do not say, ‘owner,’ for these manuscripts possess a value that cannot be purchased by any amount of silver or gold.”
The Greek Archdiocese of America plans to convey the manuscripts back to the Eikosiphoinissa Monastery.
Also speaking at the ceremony in St. Nicholas was Matthew Bogdanos, an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, who leads that office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Mr. Bogdanos helped broker the arrangement under which the manuscripts were handed over to the Greek Orthodox Church.
Several weeks earlier, the Antiquities Trafficking Unit had repatriated to the Greek government 29 other relics and artifacts, valued at more than $20 million. These include a surpassingly rare gold Eid Mar Coin, which commemorates the murder of Julius Caesar. (These were minted to pay Brutus’s troops after he fled Greece, following Caesar’s assassination.) Additionally handed back to Greek diplomats was a Bronze Calyx Krater (dating from 350 B.C.E.), which once held the bones of a unknown individual in a chamber tomb.
In the past six months, the unit also has returned antiquities to China, Yemen, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, and Italy from New York-based museums, galleries, and private collections.