August 14, 2006

Assessing Cyprus’s stolen past

Posted at 7:00 pm in Similar cases

A new exhibition at the Cyprus Museum reflects the illegal worldwide trade in cultural heritage, with particular emphasis on those originating from Greece & Cyprus. The museum moves to the Benaki Museum in Athens on 12th September

Cyprus Mail

Taking stock of our stolen past
By Constantine Markides

A LARGE banner hangs outside the Cyprus Museum reading, “You have been robbed.”

The dire announcement refers to an exhibition at the Cyprus Museum titled ‘History Lost’ on the illicit trade of antiquities around the world, with an emphasis on Cyprus and Greece.

The banner’s assertion is not an overstatement. Throughout Cyprus over 100 archaeological sites have been looted and an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Byzantine icons, mosaics and paintings have been stolen.
Cyprus is considered an archeological gold mine. In 1929 the priest of St. Eirini in the island’s north found in a field a terracotta sculpture, which he delivered to the curator of the Cyprus Museum.
Excavations then followed, unearthing a temple in which 2000 statues, ranging from human-size to miniatures, were standing in a semicircle around the altar.

The destruction of the cultural heritage took place in three phases, according to the exhibition.
The first phase consisted of the period of consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola’s activity in Cyprus from 1865-1876.
Palma di Cesnola, an amateur archaeologist, pillaged a number of unexcavated sites and collected over 35,000 objects, generally without permission from Ottoman authorities.

When the Ottomans heard that he intended to ship the relics to the US to sell them to the newly opened Metropolitan Museum, they prohibited the export.
Palma di Cesnola nevertheless quickly loaded a number of boats, which set off for the US. Five thousand pieces were lost in a shipwreck while countless others were smashed to bits on the rough sea passage.

His bandit acts did not ruin his reputation or career. In 1879 he was appointed director of the Metropolitan Museum. Today the Cypriot collection at the Met – the most comprehensive in the Western Hemisphere – is called the Cesnola Collection.

The second phase of the destruction of Cyprus’ cultural heritage consisted of a number of illegal digs that took place in the 20th century pre-1974.
The third phase took place from 1974 onwards. “International trafficking of antiquities flourishes where political instability or war prevail,” the exhibition reads. “

As happens in countries at war or occupied by foreign powers, the antiquities trade spiralled out of control in the occupied northern part of Cyprus.”
During this period, a large number of churches and monasteries in the north were looted for art treasures.

Cyprus authorities believe that the Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikmen had participated to a large extent in the stripping of the religious treasures.
The church of Panayia Kanakaria in the Karpasia village of Lythrangomi suffered one of the worst cases of looting as a result of the war.

In 1998 Dikmen sold four of the Kanakaria church mosaics, regarded as among the most important and very few surviving examples of early Christian art, to the art dealer Peg Goldberg in Indianapolis who then tried to sell them to the Getty Museum in New York.

But the museum curator contacted the Cyprus authorities. A 1989 Indianapolis trial ruled that the mosaics had to be returned to Cyprus. They were brought back to the island two years later.

Director and writer Andreas Apostolides said the decision was an “historical one because it dealt with the art dealer, who earned the lion’s share of the whole economic transaction, rather than with the… theft.”

An eight-month sting operation in Munich at several apartments Dikmen had rented under false names revealed a large number of other looted relics, which led to his arrest.

In recent times, MEP Marios Matsakis has also been accused of smuggling antiquities from the north, which led to an October police raid on his house and the seizure of a number of antique chests. One hundred of the seized chests have been returned to him, but police retain 150 urns.
Matsakis has from the outset denied all allegations of illegal trafficking, claiming they are part of a smear campaign against him.

Antiquities Director Pavlos Flourentzos said that looting has “dropped significantly in the government-controlled areas over the last 10 years thanks to heightened security around antiquities sites”.

There are also significant efforts underway to restore damaged artefacts.
A prime example is the statue of Septimus Severus, which was found accidentally in Kythrea in 1928. Looters had torn it apart in hopes that there was gold in its interior and then sold it off.

The Cyprus Museum has restored the statue, considered one of the most famous portraits of Emperor Septimus Severus and one of the few surviving bronze statues worldwide.

History Lost is showing at the Cyprus Museum until August 21. The exhibit will then travel to Athens Greece, where it will be on display at the Benaki Museum from September 12 to October 22.

Iraq: the largest museum robbery in history
THE DESTRUCTIVE effects of war upon a nation’s cultural heritage are best exemplified by the plundering of the National Museum of Iraq – the largest ever museum robbery in the world – after the 2003 US invasion.

It was not the first time Iraq had suffered major wartime looting. Amidst the chaos caused by the 1991 Gulf War, 11 regional museums in Iraq were broken into and numerous archaeological sites openly plundered.
But the major cultural catastrophe for Iraq occurred when the National Museum of Iraq was ransacked and at least 13,864 objects were stolen. The actual number of antiquities stolen is probably much greater but the exact number of relics in the storerooms, which were also raided, is unknown.
Only 5,359 of those relics were recovered.

Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum said the looting was “entirely predictable and could easily have been stopped”, while two Bush administration advisors resigned over the incident.

Martin Sullivan, chairman of the U.S. President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, and State Department cultural advisor Gary Vikan told Reuters they resigned because the US military did nothing to protect Iraq’s antiquities despite advance warning about their vulnerability.
Critics have argued that while US forces quickly posted troops to guard the Iraqi Ministry of Petroleum buildings, they made no similar effort to guard the museum.

The Geneva Conventions require an occupying force to safeguard cultural facilities such as museums from damage, though they also ban fighting from those buildings.

Rampant illegal digging in the famous archaeological site of Isin also followed the invasion. The site is now littered with “robber holes” two to three metres in diameter and five to seven metres deep.

It is believed that much of the money made from smuggling the antiquities has been used to fund the guerrilla opposition to the US occupation.
Within archaeological circles, Iraq is known as “the cradle of civilisation”, with a cultural history that goes back about 7,000 years.
There are presently fears that the Israeli bombing and ground invasion of Lebanon could lead to the pillaging of its archaeological sites.

A history of antiquities
ANTIQUITIES were first collected as art during the Renaissance, according to the exhibition ‘History Lost’.
By the 18th century, the proper breeding of every northern European aristocrat required a trip to Italy for a “Grand Tour” of its classical antiquities – a trip considered all the more successful if the highborn pilgrim returned with a collection for home ornamentation.
In the 19th century two different conceptions of antiquities soon developed and persist to this day: the perception of antiquities as objects of art or as objects of historical knowledge.

The narrow pursuit of antiquities as individual art objects separated from their environment has, to the great distress of many archaeologists, led to the destruction of archaeological sites around the world.

In the late 20th century, the increasing number of museums and private collectors exhausted the legal supplies of antiquities, which led to a boom in the theft, pillage and trafficking of antiquities

By the late 1960s the world’s archaeological sites were being so heavily plundered that the United Nations decided to intervene.
In 1970 the UN adopted the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”.

The Convention, which took effect in 1972, did not manage to end illegal smuggling as museums, collectors, and dealers came up with new ways to hide their illegal activities such as by forging documents. But the law did put an end to the no-questions-asked approach towards antiquity smuggling and formally criminalised the entire process from looting to purchase.

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