Monday, November 24, 2008

Stolen Byzantine icon is returned to Greece

14th-century stolen icon back in Greece
19 November 2008
Athens News Agency

A 14th-century Byzantine icon stolen from a Greek monastery in 1978 and returned to Greece this month was unveiled in Athens on Wednesday. The icon, which had turned up in London five years ago, will be kept at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens to undergo preservation work before it is returned to the northern Greek province of Serres, from where it was stolen.

Presenting the icon, Culture Minister Mihalis Liapis said it was proof of the coordinated efforts of all those striving to preserve Greece's cultural heritage. The icon would be returned to its place of origin, he added, because the ministry was determined not to encourage a form of "domestic Elginism" where displaced artifacts were retained by central authorities.

The icon would be returned after the monastery from which it was stolen was equipped with an adequate security system, he added. The stolen icon, originally painted using the Serres technique, had been cut in two by the thieves so that it could be taken out of the country and painted over before it was sold on the market. It is also considered to be two-sided, meaning that one side may still be in the hands of antiquities smugglers.

Information on the specific icon was given in November 2002 by the curator of the Benaki Museum in Athens Angelos Delivorias, after he was informed that it was up for sale by Ioannis Petsopoulos, acting as an agent for a "private collector" who had the icon in his possession.

The Greek Embassy in London had then asked the trader to assist in the investigation by sending any evidence at his disposal that would enable Greek authorities to apply for its return using legal and diplomatic channels. The affair led to the conviction of those responsible for stealing the icon and it was finally returned on November 16, 2008.

After 30 years, Greece welcomes back stolen icon: Detective work and British judges close case of missing Byzantine masterpiece
Helena Smith
20 November 2008
The Guardian

A stolen icon, considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine art, was back in Greece yesterday after decades of police work, diplomacy and, finally, a key ruling by the high court in London. The recovery of the piece, believed to have been painted by a master iconographer in the 14th century and depicting the removal of Christ's body from the cross, came 30 years after it was stolen from a monastery in northern Greece. "The battle to crush the smuggling of antiquities requires patience and toil - today this icon proves that when action is coordinated, it brings positive results," said the Greek culture minister, Michalis Liapis, at a ceremony to welcome the priceless piece.

The icon is thought to have originally been a gift by the emperor Andronikos Palaeologos to the monastery of Timios Prodromos in Serres. There it survived Ottoman rule and invasions by Serbian, Bulgarian and German forces, until looters stormed the monastery in 1978. It emerged in London in 1980 when a British Byzantinist, Professor Robin Cormack, spotted it in a suitcase in a restorer's atelier. It had been touched up by the looters to make it more saleable in the underground art market.

"It had been cut in two by the looters. Seeing what it was, Robin realised it must have been stolen and advised them to return it to Greece," said the cultural attache at the Greek embassy in London, Victoria Solomonides, who travelled with the icon to Greece. "That did not happen and 10 years later the plot thickened when he was called by the British Museum to value an icon. It was the same one."

On the advice of Cormack, curator of the Byzantium exhibition currently on at the Royal Academy of Arts, the British Museum decided not to buy the icon. Then, in 2002, a London-based Greek art dealer, representing a Greek collector in London, offered to sell it to the Benakis Museum in Athens for pounds 500,000. "When a Byzantine art historian saw what it was, the Greek authorities and Interpol were alerted, and the Metropolitan police called in," said Solomonides. Six weeks ago, the high court ruled that the illegally imported item should be returned to Greece. This time, a state of the art alarm system at the monastery will guard it.