Closer ties between Cyprus and Japan, reflected in the opening by the two countries of embassies in each other’s capitals, played a catalytic part in the first ever repatriation of priceless art treasures from an Asian country, a senior police officer said on Thursday.
Michalis Gavrielides, who heads the office against antiquities trafficking at police HQ, was speaking to the Cyprus News Agency about the repatriation of the 18th century royal iconostasis doors of the church of Ayios Anastasios in Turkish-held Peristeronopigi from Japan.
He noted that smugglers have increasingly looked to Asia as an option after a clampdown on illegal antiquities trafficking in Europe and the US because of its connections with terrorism.
“We hope to have further cooperation with countries of Asia that are now a market for the trafficking of antiquities, apart from European countries or the USA,” he noted.
Asked about other cases concerning the repatriation of artefacts, he noted that procedures are underway for at least three which concern religious items and antiquities which were illegally removed from the occupied areas of Cyprus and are now in European or third countries.
“We are at a very good stage,” he said, adding that in these cases there is a combination of criminal investigation, use of diplomatic relations and activation of bilateral agreements and protocols.
Cyprus’ Ambassador to Japan Charis Moritsis told the news agency that the embassy of the Republic in Tokyo was involved in this case since it started operation in 2019.
“We were asked to contribute to the task of the competent authority which is the Antiquities Department. Since the aim was clear, the cooperation of the involved parties was excellent and the instructions which the Embassy received from the Foreign Ministry were clear, due to previous experience on these issues. The difficulties faced were just procedural,” he noted.
Moritsis underlined that “our obligation is not only to repatriate the treasures of our heritage but also to be well aware that the aim is to return these treasures back where they belong.”
Gavrielides said that in the case of the royal iconostasis doors, there was a continuous contact between the Antiquities Department, the Foreign Ministry, and the competent authorities of Japan.
“We operated as advisers of the Antiquities Department and the Foreign Ministry on how to handle issues. In this case the efforts were made by diplomatic means, always with the support, guidance, and contribution of our office, which had an advisory role,” he added.
Referring more generally to the role of his office in the repatriation of artefacts, Gavrielides said that when one is tracked down, the country where it is located is notified through the national Interpol office. The aim is to stop any purchase, or to ask for an investigation, and to establish contact with the authorities of the other country.
The procedure is different when an artefact is to be repatriated from a country with which Cyprus has interstate agreements or other agreements which facilitate the repatriation.
The royal iconostasis doors returned to Cyprus after protracted efforts that intensified in the last two years, concluding one of the most complex repatriation cases. They were located in Japan in the 1990s at the Kanazawa College of Art.
The door date to 1778 according to an inscription preserved between the upper and lower part.