The Paper Chase: A Legal and Ethical Analysis of Manuscript Fragment Collecting in the United States

In 1995 Anthony Melnikas, a retired art history professor from the University of Ohio, pled guilty to criminal charges stemming from the surreptitious cutting and theft of folios from the Vatican and other libraries. The professor’s acts of desecration and larceny are more than parables designed to keep collections specialists vigilant against knife-wielding boogeymen. Rather, they are part of a story all too common to large libraries. However, a pen-knife is not always this nefarious, and thieves produce only a small subset of loose folia: dealers carve up codices for economic gain, curators remove leaves to preserve them, and ancient owners used fragments to fix bindings. While dealers have been known to dismember bound volumes for two dimensional display and sale, there are questions of what extra-legal constraints and societal norms bind them. Creation is likely one of the more exciting parts of a fragment’s history, but sale and collection of these objects embodies the majority of their modern life.


This project will examine the legal and ethical issues surrounding the creation, sale, and collection of manuscript fragments.The ethics and legality of creation will be examined in the context of modern collection and use. Who are the creators of fragments, and how should their actions be viewed in an increasingly connected world? What are the tools for holding modern creators accountable, if they should be held accountable? What roles do extra-legal norms play, if they exist at all? The ethics and legality of sale will examine the trade of fragments. What ethical considerations are at play among dealers? How have these fragments passed to US collections, and should they be returned or reunited with their European brethren? What tools are available to aid in such repatriations? What industry norms bind sellers, be they individuals, auction houses, or institutions? What markets facilitate manuscript fragment sales, and how do the parties within those networks interact?  The ethics and legality of collection will examine the fragments from the viewpoint of collectors both as large scale institutions, such as land grant universities, and individual collectors. What rules are in place to prevent the purchase of stolen fragments? What duties are owed to the collections themselves post-accession? How do extra-legal constraints guide collectors and do these constraints differ across organization type? How different are these constraints to those imposed on collectors of visual art?