Judge refuses to toss Armenian church Bible suit

The J. Paul Getty Museum on Thursday lost its bid for dismissal of the Armenian church lawsuit demanding the return of pages ripped from a sacred handwritten Armenian Bible dating back to 1256.

Superior Court Judge Abraham Khan denied Getty's motion to dismiss the claim and ordered four months of mediation in an attempt to resolve the dispute between the museum and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, which filed suit in June 2010 on behalf its mother church, the Lebanon-based Holy See of Cilicia.

The suit accuses Getty of harboring stolen illuminated medieval manuscripts, saying they are spiritually and historically sacred church masterpieces.

The lawsuit claims the church had the Bible authenticated in 1947 or 1948 and it was returned with more than a half-dozen pages missing. The pages of painted parchment once formed the front pages of a larger work called the Zeyt'un Gospels.

The church wants to send them to an Armenian museum in Yerevan so they can be reunited with the rest of the Bible.

Getty officials say the more than half-dozen pages were legally acquired in 1994 for $950,000 from an anonymous private collector.

The Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/vQW5zV ) said museum attorneys argued during Thursday's brief hearing that the lawsuit filing deadline expired decades ago.

But the judge said he was unclear on the statute of limitations issue. Khan ordered mediation and another hearing on March 2 if the case isn't settled.

Under California law, lawsuits to recover allegedly stolen artworks from a museum or art dealer must be filed no later than six years after the owner learns of their whereabouts.

"We are confident that we hold legal title," the Getty Museum said in a statement after the ruling.

Church attorney Lee Boyd said afterward that the museum failed to investigate the ownership history of the pages when it bought them from Armenian American heirs of a man the church says stole the pages in 1916.

The Zeyt'un Gospels had briefly fallen into his hands when Turks expelled the Armenian community from Cilicia, then a region of the Ottoman Empire and now part of Turkey, during and after the World War I-era that Armenians term a genocide.