The Dutch government seized four icons looted from a monastery in northern Cyprus and will hand them to Cypriot authorities today, according to Walk of Truth, an organization that campaigns to preserve cultural heritage.
The 16th-century icons portraying the four apostles, valued at about $200,000, were taken from the medieval Antiphonitis monastery in 1975. Legal efforts by the Church of Cyprus to recover the icons failed in 2002 after seven years. A change in Dutch law in 2007 allowed the government to seize the artworks, said Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founder of Walk of Truth.
“We have heard that the icons will be delivered to Cypriot authorities within 48 hours,” Hadjitofi told delegates at a Sept. 16 conference in The Hague. “The Netherlands should be congratulated for this.”
The Cypriot government says that as many as 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches in northern Cyprus were looted or vandalized after the 1974 Turkish invasion. It estimates that more than 15,000 icons are missing. Some objects have been recovered in western Europe and the U.S.
The four looted icons of the saints were purchased by an elderly Dutch couple from an Armenian dealer who visited their Rotterdam home. When the couple tried to auction the icons in the 1990s, employees of Christie’s International warned that they may be stolen. Litigation to recover them began in 1995.
A district court ruled that the Dutch purchaser bought the icons in good faith and was therefore the rightful owner. The Court of Appeals found that the claim was time-barred under statutes of limitations in 2002, according to Rob Polak, the Amsterdam-based lawyer who represented the Church of Cyprus in the legal process.
Questions about the ruling were raised in the Dutch parliament, and in 2007, the Cultural Property Originating From Occupied Territory Act was passed.
The law bans the import and ownership of cultural property originating from a territory that was occupied in an armed conflict after 1959, and allows the Minister of Education, Culture and Science to seize any such property. In cases where the owner is deemed to be a good-faith buyer, he may receive compensation from the Dutch state.
“The Netherlands tested its laws, found they were at fault, and fixed them,” said Hadjitofi, who devoted herself to recovering looted art after a Dutch dealer approached her offering to sell stolen Cypriot artifacts. “Maybe other countries such as Germany could learn from this.”
The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for confirmation and a spokesman could not be reached by telephone.
In July, a German court handed over to the Cypriot government frescos, mosaics and icons looted from churches, museums and monasteries in Northern Cyprus 16 years after they were seized by police.
The artifacts were discovered in the Munich apartment of Aydin Dikmen, a Turkish-born art dealer, in 1997. Then valued at 30 million deutsche marks ($17 million), they included a mosaic hacked from the wall of the 6th-century Kanakaria church and a fresco from the Antiphonitis Church.
After years of legal wrangling, a Munich court determined in March that 173 of the seized artworks were removed at the time of the Turkish invasion in 1974.
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