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Archimedes Manuscript Sold Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Digital enhancement of a thirteenth-century Orthodox religious text reveals an erased Archimedes treatise. (Christie's New York) [LARGER IMAGE]

An American collector has purchased a tenth-century Byzantine manuscript containing several treatises by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes over the objection of the Greek government and the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which alleges that the manuscript was stolen from a convent library in the 1920s. The manuscript was sold for $2.2 million at Christie's New York after last-minute legal action by the patriarchate and the Greek government failed to block the auction. The buyer, who remains anonymous, has indicated that he will make the text available to scholars.

Though the Archimedes texts were partially erased and covered by religious writings in the thirteenth century, they are still legible and have provided scholars with valuable insights into how Archimedes arrived at his mathematical proofs. The manuscript is the only source for his treatise On the Method of Mechanical Theorems and includes five other works. It surfaced at the Convent of the Holy Grave in Constantinople in 1907, and in the aftermath of World War I it was acquired by an unidentified French family, who put it up for auction this fall.

News of the impending sale spurred the unsuccessful legal challenge and an effort by the Greek government to raise funds to buy back the codex. "We checked [the manuscript's] history of ownership and came to the conclusion that the French family had legal title to it," says Vredy Lytsman, a Christie's spokeswoman. "We therefore felt we had a right to sell it." U.S. district judge Kimba Wood agreed with Christie's, ruling just hours before the auction that the French sellers had clear title.

Greece's consul general in New York bid up to $1.9 million before dropping out. In a statement after the sale, Evangelos Venizelos, Greece's minister of culture, noted that even though his country had lost the manuscript, he was "very proud and moved because my country raised a great amount of money to buy a treasure which was stolen." The Jerusalem patriarchate is reported to be continuing its efforts to recover the text.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America