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

By Michael Toumayan

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.

Getty Museum

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.

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.


  1. Re: “the Getty’s concern in the preservation of world artistic heritage… ”
     What right does the Getty – or anyone else, for that matter, have to assume that their interest and ability in preserving Armenian artistic heritage is superior to that of Armenians themselves?
    What exactly is “the murky history” of these manuscripts? Even those with the most basic understanding of manuscript art know that Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts are substantially different from those of any other country in the world. Who would the Getty suppose were the original owners of those manuscript pages? Does anyone think that the original owners tore them out of a manuscript and sold them? 

  2. The Armenian museum,having the body of the Gospel, should be sufficient proof that the pages were removed without any permission.
      Armenian church  is the owner of ALL ancient manuscripts. Remember the stolen books from Jerusalem’s Armenian Patriarchate?

     Getty directors,cough up the stolen pages and restore your good reputation.

  3. Dear  Michael Toumayan,
    Glad to see  you are back and indeed I commend  your very good reporting as to above important issue. I trust to hear  /see more  of your posts  here on site,as well as  in the press.
    Best rgds,
    Gaytzag Palandjian 

  4. Thank you for this article on mediation and the benefits we as a community can reap through this process. However, as a law student I must question the real ownership of these pages. Did the former owners really “own” these documents when they sold them? 

    The rule is “no one [can] give what he does not have” is a legal rule, sometimes called the nemo dat rule, states that the purchase of a possession from someone who has no ownership right to it also denies the purchaser any ownership title (yeah, I used Wiki, sorry).

    So, in general terms, if you do not own a good, and yet you sell it, the new buyer doesn’t own the object any more than you did when you sold it, REGARDLESS of them knowing you were the real owner or not. 

  5. There are other important legal questions not addressed here: how much money has the Getty made in displaying or reproducing this work in books, calendars, cards etc.? Do these funds also belong to the Armenian Patriarchate? Can all those who were in possession of these works after they were removed from the rightful owners be charged with being in possession of stolen goods? It stretches credibility to ask us to believe that anyone thought the Church voluntarily removed these pages and sold them. Many thousands of pages of our treasured art is gone. This art is stunning in its originality, its sophisticated use of colour, its indication of well understood methodology. It was made in faith under times of great duress. Great sacrifices were made in order to aquire the ingredients for the the paints. Lives were lost in attempts to protect and preserve these works. They are not only a recording of our faith, but also of our culture. It is highly offensive that the plunder of genocide should enrich any museum or individual today.
    As for the comment: “…90 years later, one cannot rule out the Getty’s possible legal possession and title to the disputed manuscripts.” What on earth does 90 years, or 900 years have to do with it? If you take works that belong to the Getty and they don’t locate them for 90 years, they still belong to the Getty. And they will demand that they be returned. These Illuminated Manuscripts belong to all Armenians everywhere. They are our heritage. We want them back. We want them returned to us from every museum and private individual in the world who is holding them.

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