November 25, 2008

Byzantine icon returns to Greece

Posted at 2:09 pm in Greece Archaeology, Similar cases

More coverage on the return of a religious icon to Greece – after a thirty year battle. As expected, the British Museum feels the need to disassociate any return from the Elgin Marbles debate.

The Guardian

After 30 years, Greece welcomes back stolen icon
Detective work and British judges close case of missing Byzantine masterpiece
Helena Smith in Athens, Thursday November 20 2008 00.01 GMT
The Guardian, Thursday November 20 2008

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 £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.

BBC News

Page last updated at 02:47 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008
UK returns stolen icon to Greece
By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens

A 14th Century Byzantine icon, valued at £1m (1.2m euros) and stolen from a Greek monastery 30 years ago, has been returned to Athens from Britain.

The painting, which depicts Jesus Christ being lowered from the cross, was cut into six pieces to be smuggled out of Greece.

A British court had ordered its return, dismissing an appeal by the owner.

Greek officials said it showed their determination to track down illegally exported artefacts and claim them back.

Three black-clad nuns genuflected and kissed the icon after it was unveiled by Greece’s Culture Minister Michalis Liapis.

The large painting was commissioned 700 years ago for the St John the Baptist monastery in Serres, northern Greece, and had hung there until its theft in 1978.

Increased co-operation

The icon was recovered by British police art experts after it was offered for sale in 2002 by London-based Greeks.

They failed to provide proof of ownership and so the High Court in London ordered its return to Athens.

“It holds the prayers of seven-and-a-half centuries. That is how important it is,” said Victoria Solomonides, Greece’s cultural attache in London, who masterminded its return.

“The message is very loud and very clear. We will not stop until we get what belongs to the Greek state and restore it,” she added.

Britain’s ambassador to Greece, Simon Gass, interpreted the icon’s return as a sign of increased international co-operation in the area of art crime.

“Unfortunately too many wonderful works of art have been stolen, including from churches, in Greece over the years and it is just tremendous to see the collaboration between the British and the Greek systems which has allowed this work of art to be returned to Greece,” he said.

But Mr Gass said this did not create a precedent for the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, the treasures held by the British Museum, which are top of Greece’s wanted list.

After its brief appearance, the icon was taken away by restorers, who will spend several months attempting to repair the damage done by the thieves.

Eventually the icon will be returned to the sisterhood in Serres.

Kathimerini (English Edition)

Britain returns Byzantine icon
Thursday November 20, 2008 – Archive

A Byzantine icon that was stolen from a monastery in northern Greece 30 years ago and ended up in the hands of a London-based art collector a few years ago, has been returned to Greece, the Culture Ministry said yesterday. The 14th-century painting, which shows Christ being taken down from the cross, disappeared from a monastery in the northern town of Serres in 1978. Greek authorities traced its whereabouts in 2002 when a British collector, who is reportedly of Greek origin, attempted to sell it. Greek authorities alerted the British police after the collector allegedly refused to hand over the painting despite being shown evidence that it had been illegally smuggled out of the country. A British court finally ruled earlier this year that the painting should be returned to Greece, dismissing an appeal from the collector who has owned it for the past six years.

“Days like these are a joy for all those struggling to rescue our cultural legacy,” Culture Minister Michalis Liapis said.

The icon is to be returned to the John the Baptist Monastery in Serres after undergoing restoration at Athens’s Byzantine and Christian Museum. Liapis said security would be intensified at the museum to prevent another theft. “The Culture Ministry does not encourage domestic ‘Elginism,’” he said.

Liapis exploited the development yesterday to reiterate Greece’s bid for the repatriation of smuggled artifacts, including the Parthenon Marbles which are in London’s British Museum. “The ministry is making a major effort on a daily basis to repatriate monuments that have fallen victim to criminal activity,” Liapis added. In recent months, Greece has reclaimed antiquities from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Shelby White collection in New York.

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