More Context on the Menil Frescoes

The Frescoes at the Menil in Montrose

The return of the Byzantine Frescoes to Cyprus presents an opportunity to consider what will happen to the physical space which was specially created to house them at the Menil in Houston. But it also offers an opportunity to look back at the acquisition process for the frescoes. Lisa Gray reports that at the time of the acquisition, Dominique de Menil understood they were dealing with ‘Thugs’:

An example of the chopped up mosaics before restoration

De Menil and her associates had flown to Munich, expecting to see two Byzantine frescoes of unusual excellence. Their contact, Turkish businessman Aydin Dikmen, led the little party to a ratty neighborhood at the edge of Munich, then up a flight of stairs to an apartment that had no electricity. In a room lit only by two candles, de Menil was shown two pieces of plaster (John the Baptist, plus part of an angel) propped against a wall. Other bits were packed in a crate. De Menil was horrified. “The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty,” she later told Texas Monthly reporter Helen Thorpe. “It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital.” Through translators, Dikmen told her that the frescoes had been discovered under rubble at a construction site in Turkey. The de Menil party doubted the story. But de Menil agreed to pay Dikmen earnest money in exchange for the right to buy them in the future. At that point, she did something unusual for the wild-and-woolly 1980s antiquity market: She began earnestly trying to track down the frescoes’ rightful owner. Eventually, after many letters exchanged by lawyers and embassies, it became clear that the frescoes had been stolen from a tiny church near the town of Lysi, on the island of Cyprus. In 1974, after Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, looters systematically robbed the area’s churches and monuments of anything they could carry off. In the little church at Lysi, where the frescoes were painted into the walls’ plaster, they’d glued cloth to the walls’ surfaces, then used a chain saw and chisel to hack away Christ, Mary and the angels, yielding 38 cloth-fronted pieces.

It is a fascinating story of one of the rare examples of a collector working with the original owner to solve a theft, restore the mosaics, display them, and return them to Cyprus. But in this case, the thieves were rewarded. The mosaics were stripped from their church, sold on the international market in Munich. So it is a good result, and the Menil and the Byzantine Church of Cyprus should be rewarded, and yet this was a success for the thieves as well.

The Chapel in Lysi, Cyprus where the mosaics were stolen
  1. Lisa Gray, Afterlife for a chapel, Houston Chronicle, February 5, 2012, http://www.chron.com/life/gray/article/Gray-Afterlife-for-a-chapel-2968817.php#src=fb (last visited Feb 6, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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