Protecting our cultural heritage is a complex affair, to say the least. Mitigating risks from physical damage to the threat of theft, is not a small task, even more challenging is handling situations when they do arise. When materials under our care are pronounced as missing or stolen, the fallout can be immense, especially when compounded with the enormous task of searching for stolen property across international borders. Often, when something does happens our first response is to keep it between a select few. Going against this reaction is more proactive and could prove more beneficial when it comes to theft.
In the case of two Seljuk-era manuscripts, stolen from the Yusuf Ağa Manuscript Library in the central Anatolian province of Konya, publicly available information discussing the theft and details about the missing manuscripts respectively led to their recovery.
While researching Ottoman birdhouses in the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscripts Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Hüseyin Şen, a Turkish Ph.D. student from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, discovered two Arabic manuscripts entitled, “El-İşaret Ve’t-Tenbihat Fi’l-Mantık” and “Maftahu’l-Ulum.” The Schoenberg Collection was amassed by Lawrence J. Schoenberg, who collected over 287 Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and gifted his collection to Penn Libraries in 2011. The two Turkish manuscripts Şen discovered in this collection, he believed were 2 of 103 that were reported stolen in 2000.
Şen recalled an article he had read and began to suspect that those manuscripts found in the Schoenberg Collection belonged to the Yusuf Ağa Manuscript Library. He furthered his research on the items by consulting a database published on the Turkish Ministry site, which included descriptive information and dates about the stolen items. Şen also searched catalogs for collections that had been amassed over the last decade. It became clear to him that they were indeed the missing manuscripts.
What is interesting about this situation is that an independent researcher conducted a thorough investigation to prove the originality and provenance of the manuscripts. Şen was aware of the missing manuscripts and understood the work it would take to prove that they belonged to the Yusuf Ağa Manuscript Library. The books had been defaced. The covers and other indicators of provenance were removed and new covers were manufactured. Thus, having as much information on and about the manuscripts went along way in helping the Turkish authorities from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to recover the items. Although the two manuscripts were returned in 2015, there are still over 100 manuscripts, 7 books, and 62 covers still at large.