The Met returns precious medieval charter to Belgium

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Six people, including minister Lahbib, stand around a table on which a medieval charter lies. At the back are a Belgian and American flag

After more than 100 years, the centuries-old charter is finally back home. © FPS Foreign Affairs/ Eric Herchaft

On January 26, 2023, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) returned a unique charter of Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders in the 12th century, to Belgium during a ceremony at the Egmont Palace (Brussels) in the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lahbib and State Secretary in charge of Science Policy Dermine.

Until WWI, the Benedictine abbey of Mesen – near Ypres – kept an extensive archive of ancient documents. During the war, however, the abbey was completely destroyed and its possessions were lost or scattered.

In recent decades, a number of deeds have appeared in private collections or at public sales organized by renowned auction houses in all corners of Europe. The State Archives of our country is doing everything it can to recover those documents, which are regarded as inalienable state treasures. After all, their status of inalienability does not expire.

In 2016, Belgian medievalists discovered that there might be a valuable charter in New York's famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known as The Met. It concerned a charter that the Count of Flanders Philip of Alsace donated to the abbey of Mesen in 1176.

Photograph of a medieval charter with seal

This is what the nearly 850-year-old charter looks like. © FPS Foreign Affairs/ Eric Herchaft

The Met had acquired the charter in good faith in 1923 as a gift. A thorough investigation confirmed the origin of the document from Mesen. The Met then decided to transfer the valuable piece to Belgium free of charge. Our consul general in New York received the medieval deed so that she came under the protection of the Belgian state again.

The official handover to the Belgian state and the Belgian State Archives took place in the Egmont Palace on January 26, 2023, in the presence of Minister Hadja Lahbib and State Secretary Thomas Dermine, the American ambassador to Belgium Michael Adler, the director of The Met Pierre Terjanian and general state archivist Karel Velle. The certificate will be kept in the Bruges State Archives.

"The return illustrates and strengthens the friendships we maintain with the US," said Minister Lahbib. "A large part of the archives of the abbey of Mesen is however still missing," added state archivist Velle. "We hope that the news of the return can help locate the missing archives."

More info: The Metropolitan Museum of Art returns charter of 1176 to the State Archives of Belgium