Showing posts with label stolen icons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stolen icons. Show all posts

October 3, 2013

Thursday, October 03, 2013 - ,, No comments

After decade-long fight, Cyprus recovers icons of apostles from the Antiphonitis church in Kalograia

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[1], 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.[2] 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. <>.

"Επαναπατρίζονται στην Κύπρο σημαντικά εκκλησιαστικά έργα τέχνης." H KAΘHMEPINH. N.p., 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

Hickley, Catherine. "Looted Icons Seized by Dutch Government Return to Cyprus." Bloomberg, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

Matyk, Stephen, ‘The Restitution of Cultural Objects and the Question of Giving Direct Effect to the Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954’ (2000) 9(2)

Rose, Mark. "Special Report: Church Treasures of Cyprus - Archaeology Magazine Archive." Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America, 51(4). July-Aug. 1998. Web. <>. (last accessed 29 Sept 2013)

Stevenson, Peter. "Returned Icons given a New Home." Cyprus Mail. N.p., 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

"Stolen Icons Being Returned to Cyprus." Cyprus Mail. N.p., 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

[1] Hickley, Catherine. "Looted Icons Seized by Dutch Government Return to Cyprus." Bloomberg, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.

[2] Rose, Mark. "Special Report: Church Treasures of Cyprus - Archaeology Magazine Archive." Archeology. Archaeological Institute of America, 51(4). July-Aug. 1998. Web. 29 Sept. 2013

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