Friday 19 February 2010

1978 Theft Frescoes Return to Greece

Five Byzantine hagiographic frescoes dating from the 13th and 16th centuries stolen from a church thirty years ago returned to Greece from Basle, Switzerland at dawn Thursday. The priceless frescoes had been stolen by Greek antiquities smugglers from the Palaiopanagia Church in Steni, Evia in August 1978 and illegally sent out of the country. They were found by the Greek authorities (Athens Security Police Antiquities Smuggling unit) in 2006 in the hands of a "well-known Italian antiquities dealer", in a gallery he ran jointly with his German wife in Basel. Legal procedures for the return of the precious icons were begun by Greek authorities but they lasted more than two years, and sought the judicial assistance of the Swiss authorities for confiscation of the stolen paintings. Charges were reportedly brought against the antiquities dealer and all others involved. In December 2009, the Basle prosecutor's office issued a final judgement ordering the unconditional return of the frescoes to Greece.
The frescoes depict Saints Ermolaos, Nikitas, Makarios of Egypt and Nestor, and are unique examples of the school of painting prevalent in the 13th and 16th centuries on mainland Greece. Palaiopanagia is a 12th century cross-shape roofed Byzantine church renowned for its exceptional art hagiographies that are distinguished for their precision of proportions and colors. The five stolen frescoes are a point of reference in international and Greek studies, outstanding among which is a 1971 study co-authored by the present Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronymos titled "Medieval Monuments of Evia", which has been awarded by the Academy of Athens. The study, in fact, was a key factor in definitively identifying the frescoes and positively establishing before the Swiss authorities that the five icons are protected Greek cultural monuments.
This case illustrates that the turning of any piece of monument into a "portable antiquity" is only a matter of determination of the artefact hunters supplying the international commercial market in antiquities. These paintings were hacked off the wall and sold, even though they formed an integral part of a cycle which cannot be understood without seeing them in the context of the church itself and other decoration. The latter of course cannot be appreciated when these elements have been crudely removed for commercial gain merely leaving holes. What on earth would a collector buying such items say to "justify" that? Another disgusting element of this story is that despite the "exceptional" nature of the paintings, it seems nobody handling them between 1978 and 2006 was asking where they had come from. Not so as to get an answer.

Still, even though the theft took place nearly thirty years ago, there is now a chance that those responsible can be at the least named and shamed and their more recent business dealings examined by the relevant authorities with a toothcomb to see what else they moved around "no questions asked".

This case is also discussed on Looting Matters

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