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March 30, 2024

Stolen Saint: Ukraine Authorities Retrieve the Holy Warrior Bas-Relief of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki from an Online Auction

After a rare bas-relief appeared in an online auction, with an asking price of 210 thousand Ukrainian Hryvni, historians with the National Museum of the History of Ukraine notified law enforcement about the suspicious upcoming sale. Believed by its wear to be a wind-blown architectural element, which at some point adorned the exterior façade of the unknown 12 to 13th century "white stone" church, experts believed the stone sculpture had been removed by looters in contravention of national law, based on the fact of illegal appropriation by a person of someone else's property or treasure that has been found or accidentally found in his possession, which has special historical, scientific, artistic or cultural value (Part 1 of Article 193 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine).

Believed to depict Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (as a Holy Warrior), the Western Romanesque-styled limestone carving could only come from areas where this specific saint was honoured, i.e. Greece, Bulgaria, or more likely, Galicia–Volyn, the former principality in post-Kyivan Rus whose structures were built in the late twelfth century through the middle of the fourteenth century.  The rural landscape of this area, now predominantly situated in western Ukraine, is speckled with forgotten and deserted Roman Catholic churches (kościoły), poignant relics of bygone settlements that once flourished in the region.

Following a lengthy two year investigation, headed by Viktor Tymchuk of the Volyn Regional Prosecutor's Office and Svitlana Nedumova, the head of criminal proceedings and prosecutor of the Lutsk District Prosecutor's Office, assisted by the inquest section of the Lutsk District Police Department in the Volyn Region, the bas-relief was seized. 

This week, on March 27th, a handover ceremony was held at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.  There, Andriy Kostin, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, entrusted the bas-relief of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki to the museum, where it will remain on display as part of the "Archaeologist's Day: Rescued Treasures" exhibition.   The Prosecutor General thanked his colleagues from the Lutsk District Prosecutor's Office for their prompt response to the statement of the General Director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, Fedor Androshchuk, regarding the monument identified during the online auction. 

Over the past three years, Ukraine's National Police and its Security Service (SBU), under the procedural guidance of the prosecutor's office, have investigated more than 300 crimes related to the theft, illegal trade, and smuggling of monuments.