By Peter Stevenson
THE Dutch government handed over four icons looted from a monastery in northern Cyprus to the island’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Kyriacos Kouros, in a ceremony yesterday in The Hague.
The 16th-century icons portraying the four apostles, valued at about €150,000, were taken from the medieval Antiphonitis monastery in 1975. Legal efforts by the Church of Cyprus to recover the icons failed in 2002 after a seven-year legal battle but a change in Dutch law in 2007 allowed the government to finally lay claim to the artworks.
“We have heard that the icons will be delivered to Cypriot authorities within 48 hours,” Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founder of Walk of Truth, an organisation that campaigns to preserve cultural heritage told delegates at a September 16 conference in The Hague. “The Netherlands should be congratulated for this.”
The Cypriot government says that as many as 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches in northern Cyprus were looted or vandalised after the 1974 Turkish invasion. It estimates that more than 15,000 icons are missing. Some objects have been recovered in Western Europe and the United States.
The four looted icons of the saints were reportedly purchased by an elderly Dutch couple from an Armenian dealer who visited their Rotterdam home. When the couple tried to auction the icons in the 1990s, employees of Christie’s International warned that they may be stolen. A court case to recover them began in 1995.
A district court ruled that the Dutch purchaser bought the icons in good faith and was therefore the rightful owner. The Court of Appeals found that the claim was time-barred under statutes of limitations in 2002, according to Rob Polak, the Amsterdam-based lawyer who represented the Church of Cyprus in the legal process.
Questions about the ruling were raised in the Dutch parliament, and in 2007, the Cultural Property Originating From Occupied Territories Act was passed.
The law bans the import and ownership of cultural property originating from a territory that was occupied in an armed conflict after 1959, and allows the Minister of Education, Culture and Science to seize any such property. In cases where the owner is deemed to be a good-faith buyer, he may receive compensation from the Dutch state, according to Bloomberg.
“The Netherlands tested its laws, found they were at fault, and fixed them,” said Hadjitofi, who devoted herself to recovering looted art after a Dutch dealer approached her offering to sell stolen Cypriot artefacts. “Maybe other countries such as Germany could learn from this.”
Over 170 religious artefacts including icons, murals and mosaics from the stolen collection of Turkish looter Aydin Dikmen were returned to the Republic of Cyprus in a special ceremony in Munich in July.
“The artworks are no longer needed as evidence and now they can return ‘home’,” German Justice Minister Beate Merk said in a statement at the time, adding “Cultural treasures are of immense importance for every nation”.