Showing posts with label Riika Köngäs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Riika Köngäs. Show all posts

February 22, 2011

Conservator Riikka Köngäs Tells the Tale of the Stolen Icon of the Mother of God of Kozeltshan and of its Recovery from the Ground

by Riikka Köngäs, Head conservator
Valamo Art Conservation Institute

On June 9, 2010, thieves broke into the Finnish Orthodox Church’s Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki, the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. The alarm went off at 2.16 a.m. By the time security arrived at the cathedral less than 15 minutes later, the thieves were gone, along with one of the spiritual treasures of the Finnish Orthodox Church, the icon of the Mother of God of Kozeltshan and pearls and other jewels worshippers had gratefully draped around the icon in gratitude for answers prayers.

Early in the 20th century, St. John of Kronstadt in St. Petersburg had given this icon of Panagia to a wealthy Russian family in Finland who told them to say a prayer in front of the icon for their daughter’s recovery from an illness. When the miracle of health occurred, the girl’s mother donated the icon to a church and the continued decoration of precious jewels signified additional miracles.

Thieves had also damaged another icon, breaking the protective glass around it, tearing away the decoration made of pearls, throwing them on the floor, and stealing its metal halo with precious stones. Apparently this icon was saved because of its size; it must have been too large for thieves to take with them.

The damaged icon of St. Barbara was brought to me for conservation treatment few days later. Luckily, the damages were not too serious, but the halo was missing.

Police were very doubtful that the icon of Mother of God of Kozeltshan could ever be found, assuming it had been taken away from the country immediately.

In the autumn of 2010, the Uspenski Cathedral had unpleasant visitors again. Due to fast action by the police and security, this time the thieves were caught before they could steal anything. Later, one of these men, a Romanian, was found guilty in the June theft and sentenced to prison for two and half years and required to pay compensation of 180,000 euro. Months later, he decided to confess what he had done with the icon. The police said he must have had a bad conscience, since his confession would not reduce his sentence.

On Monday, February 8, 2011, I received a phone call that nearly threw me off my chair. The police told me confidentially that they knew the location of an icon that had been stolen eight months earlier. They asked for advice on how to treat the icon, since it is likely buried in the ground. I could hardly believe what they told me, advised them on how to handle the icon, and received a promise that they would let me know what happened as soon as possible.

The next day, the police called me again, this time they were on the spot, they had dug in the snow and found the icon in the ground, and asked me what to do next. When I heard that the icon was there without any kind of protection, that picture side was towards the ground, my heart jumped to my throat. What is left from an icon after it has spent six or eight months buried in the ground? I flew immediately to Helsinki to see the icon and to take it to our conservation department.

My first sight of the icon made my hands shake, literally. A very strong smell of wet ground rose from the icon. It was covered with leaves, twigs, sand, and dirt. The icon had become a home for all sorts of insects and worms. What struck me was how the faces seemed to be so clean, almost glowing, in the middle of all that dirt, and how well the icon looked despite its fate.

Two weeks have passed now, and every morning, when I take the icon from the cold storage, where it spends most of its time at the moment, and open the box, I feel the same amazement. The odor of wet dirt still overwhelms me when I open the box. The initial cleaning has been completed, but the most important thing is to wait and have patience to allow the icon to dry. This process takes weeks, if not months, since the drying-process must be very slow so that the wood does not get any more damaged from fast drying. If the wooden ground gets damaged, the paper layer of the painting will get damaged as well. To prevent the icon from drying too fast, the icon is stored in a cold storage, letting it breathe for a couple of hours daily. During these hours I am able to document the icon, and get more knowledge about the damages, and make plans for conservation. Patience is needed at this point, lots of it.

Editor's Note: Readers can look at more photos on Riikka's blog at

December 15, 2010

Profile: Noah Charney Interviews Icon Conservator Riika Köngäs

ARCA Founder Noah Charney recently interviewed ARCA Alum Riikka Köngäs, one of Europe’s youngest conservators of icons. She also works for the largest art gallery (Retretti) in Finald as a courier and a conservation specialist. She is Secretary of the Icon-Network Association, an organization providing information about icons, icon collections, education and conservation. One of the objectives of the Icon-Network is to prevent trade of stolen icons by creating a database of stolen icons (

Riikka Köngäs graduated in 2003 with a BA (HONS) Conservation and Restoration of Art and Antiquities from Lincoln University, Great Britain. Specific work experience as an art conservator was acquired from Paliambela Archaeological Excavations in Greece and from the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece, as well as other museums in Finald. She completed the MA-program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection in 2009. She published her dissertation, "Copy versus Forgery: The Difficulty in Determining Motive with Regards to Modern Iconography and Icon Collections" in the Spring 2010 Journal of Art Crime.

Noah Charney: What sort of conservation work do you do?
Riikka: I work as a head conservator in the Valamo Art Conservation Institute in Finland. We conserve paintings on wood and on canvas and are specialized on icon conservation. Our specialization is unique in Finland and in Scandinavia. We take commissions not only from the Orthodox church, but also other churches in Finland, from museums, insurance companies and works from private sources form perhaps half of our work load. Besides practical conservation, we do condition reporting to exhibitions and different art collections, give advice of preventing conservation and handling of art, and naturally give lectures about art conservation.
We are a small institute, but play a significant role in different European projects, from which the latest is a project called Icon Network. Within this project we set up an exhibition with theme “icons and war”, published a book supporting the theme and currently work partly with web pages to help people who are interested about icons.
Noah Charney: What is the process, when you receive a commission of an icon to restore?
Riikka: Each icon is unique, and there is no straightforward way to restore an icon. Firstly, when talking about icon, we usually think about painting on flat wooden support. But there are icons painted on canvas, as well as on metal, I have even seen one painted on dried fish skull!

Normally our work starts with documentation. We have full-time research photographer working for us, so he photographs the icon, and if necessary, he can take ultraviolet and infrared photos, even x-rays. Then follows written documentation, which we carry on through whole process, writing down every step we do. So called “normal” process includes cleaning, stabilization of paint layer and restoration (painting) only if necessary. Each case has to be considered separately. For example, if an icon is from the museum, we hardly do any restoration at all. But if an icon goes to a church, or at private home, we usually do restoration. It would be rather difficult to concentrate on praying in front of this icon if half of the face was missing!
Noah: You completed the ARCA postgraduate program in 2009. What did the program offer to you?
Riikka: It was terribly interesting, loaded with huge amount of information in short time, and it gave me a push to find out more about certain matters in illicit trade of art, and of icons. It assured me that the more we know about this dark side of art world and the more we educate ourselves, the more we can do to prevent these things happening. Finland is such a small country, but by no means a safe bird nest. The program gave me several ideas what to do next, and very importantly several good connections to turn to if I need advice.
Noah: Tell me about your work since completing the ARCA program.
Riikka: Full speed rollercoaster! I took over the head conservators role after returning to work immediately after the course, and have been settling into that. Besides managing the institute, marketing, finding new projects, traveling around Finland from church to church, giving lectures etc etc, I do practical conservation as much as I can, since that is the part I enjoy tremendously. In June 2010 an icon was stolen from a cathedral in Helsinki, and one icon was damaged badly. I did conservation on this particular icon, and started discussions about the need to secure churches. This continues and hopefully with good results. We set up an exhibition in our monastery and did the security plan for it (using ArtGuard) and now I am planning next exhibitions. The plan is to have an exhibition with fakes and forgeries, co-operating with some museums and police. The process has been started already, and it looks splendid.
Noah: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the conservation world?
Riikka: Worldwide, there are so many challenges and demands to protect cultural heritage…

If I think only about my area of conservation, I almost see red when I meet today’s artists and see their work. I give many lectures trying to make artists understand the importance of good technique; it’s the matter of quality, not quantity. Just take a painting (or even icon) 100 years old, and it still looks more or less top quality. Whereas we are getting more and more badly prepared canvases or panels only 10-20 years old and already damaged. Education, education, that is the word!
Noah: There has been a recent debate about how much cleaning should be done on Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Would you like to comment?
Riikka: I am not very familiar with this case, but general rule I try to follow as much as I can is "less is more”, as I guess every conservator thinks. Making sure that piece of art will be there for next generations is the most important, not restoring it so that it looks like new. And this doesn’t mean treating the object only; it includes taking care of the surroundings as well. Cleaning is always a bit risky, especially when using detergents or solvents or new methods that haven’t been in use for long.