The Getty has announced the return of a 12th-century Byzantine illuminated New Testament. Details are scarce in the piece, other than a record in 1960 from the Monastary indicated the Manuscript was missing. The object was acquired in 1983 as part of a “large, well-documented” collection.
From the Getty’s release:
The manuscript was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1983 as part of a large, well-documented collection. Recent research on the object by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, which was conducted in close collaboration with the Getty, suggested that the New Testament had not been legally transferred from the Monastery of Dionysiou. This was confirmed by a recently obtained 1960 monastery record indicating that the book had been illegally removed. The report of its disappearance had never been made public, nor had information about the theft been made available to the Getty, to law enforcement, or to any databases of stolen art.
The Getty is right to point out in the release that this is a voluntary return which came about as a result of the agreements entered into by the Museum as a result of other returns of illicit material. But one wonders about this other collection, if there are other objects in that collection which may be suspect, and how exactly the facts surrounding this return came to light.
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
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.
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 Original Location of the Frescoes in Cyprus
Douglas Britt, Houston’s Menil is returning holy artworks to Cyprus – Houston ChronicleHouston 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).
Bill Davenport, Space-Age Chapel Will Need New Art: Menil’s Byzantine Frescos a Go-Go GoingGlasstire (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).
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).
Kelly Crow, Houston’s Menil Collection to Return Frescoes to CyprusThe Wall Street Journal (2011), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903703604576587072924927678.html (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
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Six stolen Byzantine-style icons have been discovered in London near the Greek embassy.
The plundered art was revealed after a telephone call from a woman claiming to recognise one of the icons – a famous rendition of the Virgin – on the website of the Temple gallery in west London. Further investigation showed that the immaculately preserved gold-edged painting was among six icons reported missing from Greece that the specialist was selling for up to £5,000 each.
Richard Temple, who owns the gallery and is acknowledged as London’s foremost dealer in icons, said that when he bought them he had “absolutely no reason” to suspect they were stolen.
“I’ve been in the business for 51 years and I’m too well known as a gallery to take any risks at all,” he said. “We are an obvious target. We had gone through the correct protocols, but one has to have a certain amount of trust as business is conducted in good faith. I know the seller – he is somebody I deal with and I think he, in turn, was duped.”
Upon presentation of documentation showing them on display in Greece, the art dealer voluntarily gave up his rights to the icons last week. “They left last Thursday in the hands of Scotland Yard,” he said. “It was very painful and unfortunate.”
So Mr. Temple blames the sale on another unnamed dealer, who was also “duped”. Another unfortunate example of incomplete history. If the dealer was in fact duped he would have a remedy against the unnamed dealer.
David Nishimura picked up on a couple of major seizures last week in Paris and Moscow which indicate the illicit trade in antiquities is still going strong.
First, theBBC reports that in Paris over 650 Malian objects were seized at the Charle de Gaulle airport (see picture from BBC). The artifacts included axe heads, flintstones, and rings. Most of the objects dated from a couple thousand BC, however some may have been over 200,000 years old. These objects should soon be returned to Mali, however the archaeological context surrounding them is of course lost. There is no word on what may have alerted the French authorities to this shipment. It seems there were “[looking] out for artefacts being exported from specific countries such as Mali”.