by Michael Jansen
In July the European Parliament adopted a declaration condemning the looting and destruction of Christian religious sites in northern Cyprus, occupied by the Turkish army since 1974. Parliament also asked the Commission and Council to ensure that Ankara abides by its obligation as a candidate to implement Article 151 of the EC Treaty which calls for the “conservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage of European significance.” Subsequently, the Committee on Education and Culture approved funding for a report on the state of churches in the north.
The written declaration spoke of the 133 churches, chapels and monasteries looted and desecrated since the Turkish military invaded the island but not of the hundreds ancient and medieval sites pillaged and devastated since the occupation. The onslaught on both religious and historical sites began as soon as the Turkish troops stormed ashore in July 1974, and took place in parallel with the ethnic cleansing of 162,000 Greek Cypriots living in the occupied area. Archaeological sites, museums, churches, monasteries, castles, libraries and private art and antiquities collections were robbed and vandalised, sometimes at random by rampaging soldiers, sometimes by professional thieves and smugglers. A well-established network of Turkish Cypriot and specially trained Romanian operatives began systematically stripping churches of their icons and frescoes and archaeological sites of their treasures on behalf of Aydin Dikmen, a Turkish dealer based in Munich.
Dispatched to Cyprus by UNESCO in 1975-76 before comprehensive damage was inflicted, French Canadian scholar Jacques Dalibard recommended that the island should be regarded as “one huge monument.” But his report was suppressed and no action was taken to rescue the heritage of northern Cyprus. Consequently, at least 16,000 icons, wall paintings and mosaics and 60,000 artefacts have been stolen and exported.
A dramatic development which took place 13 years after the Dalibard report was shelved might have halted this process if pressure had been exerted on Turkey to honour its international legal obligations by providing protection for the cultural heritage of northern Cyprus. This was the 1989 trial in the US city of Indianapolis which pitted the Cypriot government and church against a local art dealer, Peg Goldberg. She had purchased four segments of an early 6th century mosaic composition stolen by Dikmen’s Romanians from the apse of the church of the Virgin of Kanakaria at the village of Lythrangomi in north Cyprus. This mosaic, which had survived the 8th and 9th iconoclasm in the Byzantine world, was considered by experts to be finer than the mosaics at Ravenna in Italy and at St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. Restoration work had just been completed on the Kanakaria mosaic and church by the Dumbarton Oaks institute in the US. The judge awarded the mosaic segments to Cyprus on the ground that a “thief [Dikmen] obtains no title or right of possession of stolen items.” Therefore, a “thief cannot pass any right of ownership to subsequent purchasers.”
There are three levels of operatives engaged in the illegal art trade: tomb robbers who harvest the crop, receivers or middle men, and customers. Tomb robbers and customers are many but middle men – wholesalers or primary dealers like Dikmen – are few and are closely connected. Over the past decade the Italian art squad has been investigating the activities of Giacomo Medici, chief of a network of tomb robbers, smugglers, dealers, and high profile customers. Although Medici has been tried and convicted of selling stolen antiquities and art, the police continue to uncover fresh information on his loot and connections.
The authorities in other heritage rich countries are also taking action against such figures and their connections. Unfortunately sentences have been light for those who are caught and tried. Aware of past mistakes, the police are becoming more aggressive, particularly in Italy and Greece. Recently a vast hoard of antiquities was discovered on the Greek island of Schinousa at a villa owned by a Greek ship owner who was involved with Medici.
Istanbul, Munich, Zurich and London are main centres in the trade in stolen Mediterranean art and antiquities. Artefacts flow along routes used by drugs and arms smugglers. They often purchase looted art to launder their profits from their other enterprises. The global trade is said to be worth $5-6bn a year.
Although the illicit art and antiquities market continues to flourish, the climate of opinion is changing. The transformation seems to have begun in the late eighties, around the time the Indianapolis court decided to send the Kanakaria mosaics home to Cyprus. The presiding judge countered the traditional European attitude to looted art by arguing that the dealer had no right to stolen property even though she claimed she had bought the mosaics in “good faith”.
Good faith is no longer considered good practice. Purchasers cannot continue to abide by the maxim, “Don’t ask too many questions”. Leading museums and collectors in the US are facing serious moral pressure and prosecution over hot artefacts in their collections. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has agreed to return to Italy a collection of silver from Sicily and 1,500 year old urn for mixing wine with water painted by Euphronios, the most famous artist of Greece’s greatest creative period. Christie’s auction house in London has taken off its books five wooden beams stolen from the mosque at Cordoba in Spain. Italy has returned to Ethiopia a column looted in 1939. Marion True, formerly of the Getty Museum in California, has become the first curator to stand trial for acquiring stolen artefacts. She is accused by Italy of purchasing at least 42 stolen items from a dealer, Robert Hecht, a customer of Medici who is also in the dock. The Getty returned to Greece two statues dating from the 6th and 4th centuries BC and is negotiating the repatriation of two more items. Germany handed over to Greece a fragment of the sculpture from the Parthenon. Greece is seeking to forge a common front with Italy and Cyprus to formulate a European policy on the illegal antiquities trade.
Michael Jansen is a Middle East regional analyst for The Irish Times and columnist for other publications. She is the author of “War and Cultural Heritage: Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish Invasion” (University of Minnesota: 2005).
This section is sponsored by the government of the Republic of Cyprus.