Checking in on Repatriated works

One of the Lysi frescoes on display in Houston at the Menil's Byzantine Chapel Museum
One of the Lysi frescoes on display in Houston at the Menil’s Byzantine Chapel Museum

Rachel Donadio reports for the New York Times on a number of repatriated antiquities back in their nation of origin. The list includes la dea di Aidone in Sicily, the Weary Heracles in Turkey, the Lysi frescoes on Cyprus, and the Euphronios Krater in the Villa Giulia.

Only the Lysi frescos, returned by the Menil to Cyprus after a 20 year loan agreement were acquired with permission of the creator communities:

In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.

When she was first offered the works, depicting Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Mrs. de Menil was skeptical about their provenance. She quietly approached the Church of Cyprus, which said the frescoes had been secreted out of the apse and the dome of the church of St. Euphemianos in Lyssi, in a part of Cyprus that had been annexed by Turkey in 1974.

Mrs. de Menil pledged to buy them — and return them to Cyprus in 20 years. The Menil Collection in Houston paid for the frescoes’ restoration, which took years. It built a bespoke minimalist space for them next to its Rothko Chapel and put them on display there in 1998. Themuseum had been hoping that Cyprus would extend the agreement and allow them to keep the works on view.

But in 2012, Cyprus asked for them back, in a climate in which the new government and leadership of the Church of Cyprus have been increasingly aggressive in their campaign to call attention to the deconsecrated Christian religious sites in the areas of Cyprus that Turkey still controls.

The Menil Collection made good on its promise. “Of course we were sad, but in the end we were very proud because ethically, from a moral point of view, this was exactly what needed to happen,” said Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection.

The frescoes are now on view in the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation Byzantine Museum and Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus’s second-most visited museum, “until the day they will be put back in the chapel,” said John Eliades, the director of the Byzantine Museum. That might not be so easy.

  1. Rachel Donadio, Repatriated Works Back in Their Countries of Origin, N.Y. Times, April 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/arts/design/repatriated-works-back-in-their-countries-of-origin.html.

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