Frescoes to Return to Cyprus from the Menil

A view of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel's dome and apse frescoes. Photo: TxDoT / HC
The Byzantine Frescoes on Display at the Menil

Some cultural repatriation news from my neighborhood. The Menil has announced that it will return the byzantine mosaics  frescoes currently housed in a custom-built chapel here in Montrose in Houston. In 1983 Dominique de Menil was offered frescoes from Cyprus. After a rigorous due diligence inquiry, it was discovered that the mosaics had been looted from Cyprus. And in a groundbreaking move, she worked with the theft victim, the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus to purchase the mosaics, to restore the damage done to them when they were looted. The mosaics have been displayed since 1997, but next year they will return to Cyprus to go on display in a new museum, though they sadly cannot be returned to the original church, for fear it might be disturbed again.

Menil Director Josef Helfenstein announced in a letter:

After more than two decades in Houston, the beloved Byzantine frescoes will go back to Cyprus in 2012. While this moment is bittersweet, the story of these frescoes—from their rescue, to their long-term loan to us, and now to their return—very much reflects the essence of the Menil Collection, its focus on the aesthetic and the spiritual, and our responsible stewardship of works from other nations and cultures

When we consider when this decision took place, in the 1980s during an era in which so many wealthy collectors bought so much looted art, this long-term lease and ‘rescue’ of the frescoes really stands apart and should be commended.

I haven’t read this in any of the reporting on the Menil, but I’ve wondered whether there is other art at the Menil which might have been acquired under suspect circumstances. In the antiquities room in the Menil there are a number of works also purchased during this period which might be suspect—red-figured vases, small pre-historic carvings of deities, cycladic figurines. The kinds of objects that were ubiquitous in the market in the 1970s and 1980s, and which we now know were likely looted. These objects may have been lawfully acquired, but its an indication of just how many objects were looted and sold to collectors at this time, and how far law, policy, and behaviors have changed. So I’ll cheer the return of these mosaics, and their responsible stewardship but I also wonder, should other objects go back?

    The frescoes now in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel were created in the 13th century for this small chapel in Lysi, Cyprus. Photo: Menil Collection / HC
    The Original Location of the Frescoes in Cyprus
  1. Douglas Britt, Houston’s Menil is returning holy artworks to Cyprus – Houston Chronicle Houston Chronicle (2011), http://www.chron.com/life/article/Houston-s-Menil-is-returning-holy-artworks-to-2186452.php#photo-1621133 (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
  2. Bill Davenport, Space-Age Chapel Will Need New Art: Menil’s Byzantine Frescos a Go-Go Going Glasstire (2011), http://glasstire.com/2011/09/24/space-age-chapel-will-need-new-art-menils-byzantine-frescos-a-go-go-going/ (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
  3. Elisabetta Povoledo, Menil Collection Is to Return Frescoes to Cyprus, New York Times (2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/24/arts/design/menil-collection-is-to-return-frescoes-to-cyprus.html?_r=1 (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
  4. Kelly Crow, Houston’s Menil Collection to Return Frescoes to Cyprus The Wall Street Journal (2011), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903703604576587072924927678.html (last visited Sep 27, 2011).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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