By Jean Christou
A STORY of theft, intrigue and shady underworld dealings spanning nearly two decades could come to a close for Cyprus tomorrow if a German appeals court rules in favour of returning the last of the island’s treasures found in the possession of Turkish art smuggler Aydin Dikmen in 1997.
While thousands of items still remain lost to Cyprus in the wake of the 1974 invasion, the Dikmen case has by far been the best known. First, he was a central character in the famous battle for the return of the Kanakaria mosaics. Second, Dikmen is widely believed to be the mastermind behind most of the antiquities smuggling out of the north in the years after the invasion.
It is estimated that around 20,000 religious, historic and prehistoric artefacts were smuggled out of Cyprus in the seventies and eighties. In October 1997, Dikmen was found in possession of several thousand items from various countries of which Cyprus laid claim to around 300. The estimated worth at the time of all of the items found in Dikmen’s possession was put at more than $40 million.
No one knows how many more pieces from Cyprus and elsewhere Dikmen might have sold in the preceding 20 years.
Dikmen was arrested in Munich, where he lived, after dozens of antiquities were found hidden behind fake walls and under the floors in two apartments he occupied. In addition to the frescoes and icons, Bavarian police also found statues, terracotta pots and coins.
In her 2006 book War and Cultural Heritage, journalist Michael Jansen described Dikmen as the “most active and influential operator” in the murky underworld of art dealing, which she said was also connected with and as dangerous as the parallel world of drug smuggling.
According to Jansen, Dikmen developed an interest in archaeology and became a collector of illegal artefacts as far back as the 1960s.
She said that by the time he met dealer Michel van Rijn, a Dutchman who was eventually instrumental in recovering many stolen Cypriot antiquities, Dikmen was a major source of icons on the international black market for art.
He lived in the Turkish quarter of Munich, and it was in 1972 Van Rijn discovered that Dikmen was stashing hundreds of pieces of Byzantine art inside the walls of his apartment. They worked together for the next quarter of a century until Van Rijn began helping the Cyprus government and the church regain some of its lost treasures.
It was Van Rijn who approached the Cypriot authorities in 1997 with an offer to act as an intermediary to buy back three mosaics and 44 frescoes, and a sting operation was set up involving the German police, who then nailed the Turkish dealer. According to Jansen, “It was in Van Rijn’s estimation the largest haul of stolen art since World War II.”
Dikmen spent only a year in jail and it wasn’t until 2004 that the Cypriot authorities and the church launched legal proceedings for the return of the items being held in evidence by the Bavarian police as Germany, despite numerous requests, would not simply hand them over without proof of provenance.
Dikmen also maintained they were legally his.
The decision to take legal action was taken in March 2004 some six months after then Attorney-general Solon Nikitas travelled to Germany in an effort to put forward a procedure for the retrieval of the Cypriot pieces.
Nikitas held consultations with his Bavarian counterpart as well as the German lawyers representing Cyprus and the three affected churches – Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian – and it was decided the best course of action would be a civil lawsuit in the German courts. The trial started in April 2009.
In September 2010 the German court ordered the return of a large number of the artefacts ruling that the church had succeeded in proving provenance for each item. Dikmen appealed but just over two years later in March 2013, the appeals court ruled that part of the stolen religious artefacts should be returned to Cyprus, which they were later that year.
The church had proved that the 173 artefacts had come from 51 different churches in the north of Cyprus, but it was only a partial decision.
Tomorrow’s appeals court ruling focuses on the remaining 80 or so items.
According to Bishop Profyrios of Neapolis, the head of the church’s representation to the EU in Brussels, around half of the pieces belong to the church, 12 to a private collector originally from Famagusta, and the rest are prehistoric artefacts belonging to the department of antiquities. The Byzantine items are mainly icons, frescoes and manuscripts, he said.
He told the Sunday Mail that it was the hope that finally all of the artefacts could be repatriated but Dikmen was still laying claim to them. “He states that they belong to him and they are not from Cyprus,” the Bishop said. “It is all up to the appeals court now.”
Bishop Profyrios hoped the decision would be positive for Cyprus but said the church would not give up the fight until all of the lost treasures of Cyprus had been returned.
The Kanakaria Mosaics
The four mosaics were stolen from the Church of Panayia Kanakaria in occupied Lythrangomi circa 1976, but it was not until 1979 that the antiquities department learned of the theft.
No news about the mosaics surfaced again until 1988 when it emerged that they were in the possession of an American art dealer named Peg Goldberg. Goldberg had secured them the same year for just over $1 million from Aydin Dikmen through a Dutch art dealer. It was agreed the three would split profits from any future sale of the items, which were shipped out of Munich to Geneva and from there to Indiana in the US. The mosaics were some of the few surviving masterpieces of Early Christian mosaics in the world and ichnographically considered unique.
The American art dealer then tried to sell them on, but the Cyprus Church learned of the deal and stepped in, requesting that Goldberg returned the mosaics. She refused though the church had offered to reimburse her. A legal battle lasting around 18 months then began until the district court of Indiana decided that the four mosaics should be returned to the church. A year later, following an appeal by Goldberg, the US Court of Appeal reaffirmed the decision of the Indiana district court. Eventually in 1991, the Kanakaria mosaics were brought back to Cyprus. Thousands of people turned out to greet their arrival at Larnaca airport. The mosaics are housed at the Byzantine museum at the Archbishopric in Nicosia.
Dikmen was to remain on the loose for another six years.
The Menil frescoes
In 1984, Aydin Dikmen sold the Menil Foundation in Houston Texas two 13th-century frescoes from the Ayios Themonianos church near Lysi.
Dikmen claimed the frescoes, which had been hacked into 38 pieces, came from an abandoned church in southern Turkey but Dominique de Menil grew suspicious and began researching the provenance of the artefacts. After further research de Menil learned that the frescoes had indeed been stolen from Lysi.
The frescoes – described by Menil Director Josef Helfenstein as “beyond rare” – arrived in Houston in 1988.
The purchase was approved by the church and the frescoes loaned to the foundation on condition they would eventually be returned to Cyprus. The lease ended in February 2012, with the Menil Foundation having spent more than $1 million in total to buy and restore them.
The foundation tried to extend the loan agreement by asking the Bishops of America and France to intervene but the church was adamant that it was time for the frescoes to be returned to Cyprus. It was grateful to the Menil Foundation for restoring and preserving them it said at the time.
The church did however provide an artist to draw replicas of the two frescoes inside the foundation. The frescos arrived back in Cyprus in March 2012.
One of the murals, that used to adorn the dome of Lysi church, depicts Christ Pantocrator surrounded by angels while the other – an apse – shows the Virgin Mary and the archangels Michael and Gabriel.