17 September 2006

Church Treasures of Cyprus

After the occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkish forces in 1974, looters stripped the region's churches, removing several dozen major frescoes and mosaics dating from the sixth to the fifteenth century, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 icons, and thousands of chalices, wood carvings, crucifixes, and bibles. Recovery efforts by the Church of Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus have resulted in the return of some pieces through acquisition, trial, and seizure.

A major break came this past October when Munich police arrested 60-year-old Aydin Dikman, a central figure in the looting and selling of the church treasures. The cooperation of Dikman's former associate, Dutch art dealer Michel van Rijn, with Cypriot and German authorities made the arrest possible. By his own account, van Rijn, who claims descent from both Rembrandt and Rubens and has been convicted in France of forging Chagall's signature, had realized the error of his ways and wished to make amends by helping recover the artworks.

In apartments owned and rented by Dikman, police found Cypriot frescoes, mosaics, and icons, ancient coins, Precolumbian pottery, stolen paintings, and an unauthenticated Picasso. Police estimate the artworks and artifacts to be worth more than $60 million. If convicted of possessing and trafficking in stolen goods, Dikman faces up to 15 years in jail in Germany. Cyprus has requested his extradition.

Dikman's participation in the depredation of Cypriot heritage in the occupied part of the island was suspected as early as 1982, when reporter Mehmet Yasin, in the Turkish Cypriot weekly magazine Olay, identified him as an antiquities smuggler. It was not until 1989 that the extent of his role became somewhat clearer through testimony in the Goldberg case, a legal battle in federal court in Indianapolis over Byzantine mosaics from Cyprus. That nearly nine years passed before his arrest can be explained partly by Dikman's efforts to keep a low profile, working through dealers and seldom meeting directly with those who purchased items from him. Furthermore, those who knew that he was selling looted Cypriot artworks did not reveal his identity to authorities out of fear of personal retribution, concern that antiquities would be destroyed to do away with evidence, or unwillingness to jeopardize potential future acquisitions.
There have been three major recoveries of church treasures, and in each case the artworks, particularly the frescoes and mosaics, have been damaged and are in urgent need of conservation.

The first recovery came in the mid-1980s when the Menil Foundation of Houston, with Cypriot government and church authority approval, purchased from Dikman the thirteenth-century frescoes of Christ Pantokrator ("All Sovereign") and the Virgin with the archangels Michael and Gabriel from the Church of St. Themonianos near the village of Lysi. In June 1983 Dominique de Menil, Walter Hopps (then director of the Menil Collection), and Yanni Petsopoulos, a London dealer acting as an intermediary, met Dikman in Munich and examined two fresco fragments in one of his apartments. Dikman claimed the frescoes were from a ruined church in southern Turkey that was bulldozed during construction of a resort. They suspected that Dikman was lying, and in late June, the foundation engaged Herbert Brownell, a former United States attorney general, to investigate the legality of the acquisition. Brownell sent an inquiry letter and photographs of the frescoes to eight countries in lands once part of the Byzantine Empire. On September 6, 1983, Cyprus replied, identifying them as coming from the Church of St. Themonianos. De Menil contacted Vassos Karageorghis, then director of Cyprus' department of antiquities. By November 11, an understanding was reached whereby the Menil Foundation would acquire and restore the frescoes on behalf of the Church of Cyprus, which would then lend them to the foundation for an extended period.

The fragments were sent from Munich to London, where conservator Laurence J. Morrocco worked on them. The fresco of Christ Pantokrator had been cut from the church dome in 26 pieces, the Virgin from the apse in 12. Restoring them was nearly impossible because there were no measurements of the original structure (the church, in a military zone in the occupied area, was considered inaccessible), and the fresco fragments had lost their original curvature. To reconstruct the dome and apse, it was first necessary to determine their exact size and shape, then the appropriate curvature could be restored to the fragments so they would fit together on the curved surfaces. The process took three and one-half years.

In November 1987, as the restoration was nearing completion, Morrocco traveled to occupied Cyprus and surreptitiously visited the church to measure the dome and apse. He described what he found in a 1991 account of his work:

It was very strange for me to see the place where the frescoes had come from. It was as if it had just happened: the saw cuts were still visible in the plaster left behind when the fragments were ripped off. I could see how the thieves had cut crudely around the circumference of the base of the dome, leaving the angels' ankles and feet on the wall. Small pieces of the fresco lay scattered around the floor amidst dirt, straw, and sheep droppings.

Once the frescoes were reassembled, decisions had to be made about treating the damaged areas. The saw cuts were restored as invisibly as possible, but the larger missing areas, such as those around the base of the dome and in the lower part of the apse, were filled in with a dark color.

In April 1988, the reconstructed dome and apse frescoes were packed into large crates for the flight to Houston. In November 1997, nearly 14 years after they were bought from Dikman, the restored frescoes, housed in a specially constructed chapel consecrated by Archbishop Chrysostomos I, were put on display. According to a deposition taken for the Goldberg trial, Petsopoulos had offered the frescoes to the foundation for $850,000; the final price has not been disclosed. The conservation costs, according to Cypriot sources, were about $1 million.

Read more at > Special Report: Church Treasures of Cyprus

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