by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas
Last week, on September 24th, four icons stolen almost four decades ago returned to the small yet culturally rich island of Cyprus. In March 1975, these 16th century icons of the Apostles Peter, Paul, John and Mark were removed from the wooden iconostasis of the Antiphonitis church in Kalograia, Cyprus. They were illicitly exported, found their way into an Armenian art dealer's hands, and were purchased by the Lans, an elderly Dutch couple. In 1995, the Lans decided to sell the icons through Christie's auction house, who became alarmed at the icon's suspicious origin and provenance and suggested that the couple refer the icons to the Cypriot Authorities.
Aside from their estimated value of €200,000, the repatriation of these icons is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, frescoes from the same church were returned to Cyprus in 1997 with the help of Michel van Rijn, an art dealer turned informant. He had purchased them off Aydin Dikman, the most renowned looter of Cypriot artifacts. Michel's continuing cooperation with Cypriot authorities led to what is estimated to be the largest haul of stolen art since World War II - the raid on Aydin Dikman's three Munich apartments. Police estimated all the antiquities found were worth more than $60 million. Cypriot frescoes, mosaics, and icons, ancient coins, pre-Columbian pottery, stolen paintings, and an unauthenticated Picasso were found. Four thousand more pieces were discovered hidden in walls and floorboards.
Cyprus filed a civil suit against Dikman in 1997, but it was not until 2010 that the German courts ruled in favor of Cyprus. Dikman appealed, but the Higher Regional court of Munich upheld the decision for the repatriation of the items. The 173 artifacts were formally returned to the Republic of Cyprus in a special ceremony held in Munich in July this year (while many more are still being held by Bavarian police due to lack of evidence that they come from Northern Cyprus). Their arrival at the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia is eagerly anticipated later this month. Ironically, amongst these 173 artifacts are more frescoes from the church of Antiphonitis. This illustrates how the cultural property that was once looted from this single church is slowly getting pieced back together.
The return of these four icons is also important because the Church of Cyprus took the Lans to court, and lost! Autocefale Grieks-Orthodoxe Kerk te Cyprus v. W.O.A. Lans was the first ever case to invoke the Protocol to the Hague Convention 1954 (Section I-3 of the Protocol). The Dutch Government and district court refused restitution as this convention had not yet been implemented into Dutch law. They also found the Lans to be bona fide purchasers and therefore the rightful owners. The Church and the Republic continued fighting for the icons, but in 2002, the Court of Appeal found that the claim was time-barred under statutes of limitations. In 2007, the Netherlands passed the Cultural Property Originating From Occupied Territory Act which prohibits the import and ownership of cultural property originating from a territory that was occupied in an armed conflict after 1959. This reopened the door for Cyprus' claim as the North of Cyprus has been occupied by Turkish forces since 1974. (Although the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is in so called ‘power’ in the North, it is not a recognized entity and the area is de jure part of the Republic of Cyprus and its jurisdiction.) So in 2011, the Cypriot Minister of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Dutch formally requesting the return of the four icons. Some may argue that it is ridiculous for a country to be denied their cultural property for so long due to the bureaucracy of a country's national laws.
The rest as they say is history but it is noteworthy to mention that none of the above might have been possible without Tassoula Hadjitofi's ongoing efforts. She was the Honorary Council to the Netherlands when Christie's alerted the Lans in 1995 and the person van Rijn approached in 1997 which led to the Munich case. The icons will remain in the Byzantine Museum until the Republic of Cyprus regains access and administration of the occupied territories when the icons will be taken back to their rightful home, the church of Antiphonitis.
Autocefale Grieks-Orthodoxe Kerk te Cyprus v. W.O.A. Lans
"Επαναπατρίστηκαν 4 εικόνες από τη Μονή του Χριστού Αντιφωνητή."Επαναπατρίστηκαν 4 εικόνες από τη Μονή του Χριστού Αντιφωνητή. O Φιλελεύθερος, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://www.philenews.com/el-gr/politismos-kypros/162/163434/epanapatristikan-4-eikones-apo-ti-moni-tou-christou-antifoniti>.
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Stevenson, Peter. "Returned Icons given a New Home." Cyprus Mail. N.p., 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://cyprus-mail.com/2013/09/24/returned-icons-given-a-new-home/>.
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