Museums fight over £1.5m medieval manuscript

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The Independent Online

The most important medieval illuminated manuscript found in Britain in living memory is at the centre of a battle between leading museums.

The most important medieval illuminated manuscript found in Britain in living memory is at the centre of a battle between leading museums.

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge lost out to the John P Getty Museum of Los Angeles when the manuscript, now known as the Macclesfield Psalter, sold for £1.5m at auction this summer.

But the Fitzwilliam is pinning its hopes on the Government, which can put a temporary ban on export to give it a second chance to raise the money.

Stella Panayotova, the museum's keeper of manuscripts, said the 14th-century work was so valuable and so closely associated with East Anglia that the Fitzwilliam was desperate to keep it.

The manuscript, a psalter of 252 illustrated pages dating from 1320-30, was discovered last year in the library of the Earl of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire.

He had decided to auction most of his library when a family dispute forced him to leave his ancestral home, and the manuscript was found almost hidden between two other books by Sotheby's experts making a valuation.

Research established that it was by the same scribe as the illustrator of the Douai Psalter, named after the French town that came to own it. But the Douai Psalter was largely destroyed during the First World War and the remaining fragments are too fragile to handle. Ms Panayotova said: "It is absolutely exceptional for something like this to turn up on the art market.

"The Macclesfield Psalter is a discovery from a period of tremendous artistic productivity in England. Of all parts of England, East Anglia was by far the most inventive and we thought it would be appropriate to return it to East Anglia. But the quality of the art is international."

The Heritage Lottery Fund rejected an application for a £2.5m grant which would have been used to bid at Sotheby's. A private dealer bid for the museum using his own money, to be repaid when it raised the cash. But he could not go higher han £1.2m, and the Getty got the manuscript for what Ms Panayotova said was a very reasonable price.

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