Mystery over Vatican pages

June 9, 1995

United States Customs continues to investigate the case of Anthony Melnikas, the Ohio State University art history professor who gave a book dealer two valuable pages of Latin text found to have been removed from a book in the Vatican Library once owned by Petrarch .

Professor Melnikas, a refugee from Lithuania, came under US government scrutiny after the book dealer, Bruce Ferrini, consulted James Marrow, a professor of art history at Princeton University, about the pages he had been given. Mr Marrow knew instantly that they came from the Vatican Library.

The library checked the book, found pages missing, and sent Mr Ferrini a list of everyone who had consulted the volume since 1891. The dealer picked out Professor Melnikas's name as the person who approached him.

The library authorities confirmed that three double folios of parchment from a medieval copy of various Roman texts had been removed.

US federal agents were alerted. Professor Melnikas has not been charged. A grand jury will decide what charges should be brought on the basis of the evidence gathered by the prosecution, according to Edmund Sargus, USAttorney for the southern district of Ohio.

He said it was a federal crime to bring into the country something that had been stolen from another country. "That is smuggling," he said. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. It is also a federal offence to fail to report anything of exceptional value at a customs checkpoint, with similar penalties.

Mark Beauchamp, a customs official, confirmed last week that the investigation was underway, while Mr Ferrini, of Akron, Ohio, has been interviewed by US Customs.

Meanwhile, Professor Melnikas continues to teach at Ohio State.

Term effectively finishes this week with the end of examinations. And Professor Melnikas, 68, is due to retire at the end of this academic year, on June 30.

The university says it is co-operating with the US government investigation.

Donald Harris, dean of the College of the Arts, which is where Professor Melnikas teaches, said: "We really want to see justice done. We want to see the truth come out."

Ohio State University is thought to have one of the best art history departments in the US, so it is keen to co-operate with the government to protect its reputation.

Father Leonard Boyle, the Irish Dominican who is "prefect" of the Vatican Library, said Professor Melnikas had been using the library almost every year for the past 30 years.

He was so well known and trusted in the library that a few years ago he worked closely with the supreme authority of the library at that time, Cardinal Alfons Stickler, on the compilation of an important book in several volumes, Decreteum Gratinius.

Father Boyle said that as far as he knew the Vatican was not planning to press any charges.

"Our official position is that the folios were 'abstracted' from the Vatican Library and may have got mysteriously mixed up with Professor Melnikas's effects.

"I examined the manuscripts from which they were cut and I'd say it was a good cutting job done with a sharp penknife. One of the folios was part of a treatise on agriculture and included a particularly beautiful illustration of a farmer working with a scythe," he said.

Access to the Vatican Library is restricted, requiring special credentials and introductions.

The volume from which the leaves were cut is a copy of 13 Roman treatises by authors like Apuleus, Cicero, Frontinus, Vergetius, Palladius and others. The missing pages were from De Agricultura, by Palladius, bearing a particularly fine illustration.

US Customs could give no indication of how long the investigation would take. It would not be affected by the end of term or the professor's retirement, said Mr Beauchamp.

USCustoms are studying other material handed to Mr Ferrini by Professor Melnikas.

According to Mr Ferrini, US Customs have taken a 14th-century manuscript page removed from a copy of the Justinian code, which is valued at $25,000 in his current sales catalogue.

And they are interested in seeing a medieval legal manuscript which is in the process of being returned to him by a customer, the dealer said.

Mr Ferrini said he had been questioned about the items by US Customs for two days and expected further questioning.

Other items which Professor Melnikas had passed to him, including a 19th-century watercolour painting, a folio edition of Hogarth prints and two copies of a three-volume work on medieval manuscripts written by Professor Melnikas, are being returned to him.

A check is currently being carried out of all the 100 or so books consulted by Professor Melnikas.

Last week Professor Melnikas declined to comment directly, but his lawyer said that the "leaves had not been stolen" and that the professor was co-operating with the authorities.

Professor Melnikas "is not a businessman but a respected scholar who is anxious to resolve these questions".

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