Antiquities: dealing vs. stealing

Four months ago, I wrote something about how, through the miracle of digitization, a long dismembered illuminated manuscript called the Beauvais Missal was being re-assembled. I mentioned how the leaves of this work had been broken up and sold individually (an activity known as “biblioclasm”) by a rare books dealer and notorious book-breaker in New York named Philip Duschnes, who had purchased the Missal from William Randolph Hearst.

Duschnes’ name crossed my screen again today in a story about how the Boston Public Library is going to return three items to their rightful owners in Italy, after having had them in their collections for decades. The items were all purchased “legitimately” by the BPL. including one from Duschnes in 1960, Mariegola della Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia.


It’s the one on the right. In English, it’s  “Rules of the school of Our Lady of Mercy “.

The B.P.L. is putting a rosy spin on the affair, bragging about how it discovered the true history of the items through its own researches, has been a careful custodian of them for decades, and now wishes to return them to their rightful owners.

In a press release, they explained

“Today Boston Public Library announced the return of three items from its Special Collections to the State Archives of Venice, Italy and the Library of Ludovico II De Torres in Monreale, Italy. During a repatriation ceremony with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and representatives from Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Italian Carabinieri, Boston Public Library formally returned the Mariegola della Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia, a medieval manuscript dating to 1392; an illuminated leaf from the manuscript Mariegola della Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, dating from between 1418-1422; and Varii de natvralibvs rebvs libelli, a  collection of works by Bernardino Telesio, published in 1590.”

As regards the item purchased from Duschnes,

Questions about the Mariegolas’ provenance emerged through new independent scholarship and a recent project funded by the library to research and describe its medieval manuscripts holdings in preparation for electronic cataloging and digitization. The Mariegola della Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia was written in Bologna in 1392 for the use of the scuola (confraternity) of Our Lady of Mercy at Valverde, a spiritual and charitable brotherhood.  It was part of the scuola’s collection until the confraternity was dissolved in 1803, at which point it passed into the collection of the State Archive of Venice. Beginning in 1879, the manuscript was on permanent display in the Archive’s Sala Diplomatica Regina Margherita. The manuscript was taken off exhibition in the late 1940s, at which time several manuscripts disappeared under unknown circumstances, including the Mariegola della Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia.

Another way to say “disappeared under unknown circumstances” is that the item was “mistakenly” stolen , and somehow managed to find its way to Philip Duschnes and then to the BPL.

What’s interesting to me about this version of events is that it doesn’t quite mesh with the provenance of the item given in the BPL’s own link, which states that prior to Duschnes, the previously known owner was one Michael Zagayski.  Zagayski was a Polish collector of Judaica whose collection was stolen by the Nazis in 1939.

I have no idea where Duschnes got the item from, but I do know that what it meant to be a legitimate Rare Books and Manuscripts dealer in 1960 is somewhat different than what it means now. Duschnes enjoyed a good reputation in his day (except among his peers who objected to his greed-induced biblioclasm), but issues of provenance were not nearly as sensitive then as now, and “acquiring” items from far-off and war-torn places was seen more as a capitalist right than a historical privilege.

The representative of the Italian police working on this case, Fabrizio Parrulli, said he expects many more cases of repatriation like this one.

The Boston Public Library  holds nearly 250,000 rare books and one million manuscripts. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said during Wednesday’s ceremony, “Hopefully everything we have is ours now.”

What are the chances?




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