Princeton sued over allegedly stolen historic manuscripts

PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) — The leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches is suing Princeton University for the return of four historic manuscripts allegedly stolen from a Greek monastery during World War I.

The lawsuit filed last week in federal court in New Jersey alleges the documents made their way into the hands of dealers, and that the university bought one in 1921 and a Princeton alumnus and trustee bought the other three in 1924 and donated them to the school in 1942. The documents are housed at the university’s library.

The suit was filed on behalf of Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, often described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders.

In addition to the return of the documents, the suit seeks damages in the amount of the manuscripts’ current market value. That amount wasn’t specified in the lawsuit, and an attorney representing the plaintiffs didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.

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A Princeton University spokesman said Wednesday the school’s research hasn’t produced evidence the manuscripts were stolen.

Two of the documents are parchment manuscripts dating to 955 and 1081, respectively. A third is believed to be a page fragment from the 955 manuscript, “Saint John Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Homilies 1-45).”

A fourth manuscript was written at the Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa Monastery in northern Greece in the 16th century, according to the lawsuit.

Bulgarian troops invaded the monastery in March 2017 and removed numerous manuscripts that later made their way into the hands of dealers and auction houses in Europe, the lawsuit alleges.

“Because the Manuscripts were stolen, Princeton was unable to, and never did, acquire good title or any interest in the Manuscripts,” the lawsuit reads.

Michael Hotchkiss, a Princeton University spokesman, disputed the allegations.

“Since this matter was brought to our attention in late 2015, we have carefully reviewed all of the information provided and also conducted our own research on the provenance of the manuscripts,” he said. “Based on the information available to us, we have found no basis to conclude that the manuscripts in our possession were looted during World War I or otherwise improperly removed from the possession of the Patriarchate.”

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This story has been updated with the correct AP style on Eastern Orthodox churches.

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