By Demetra Molyva

A precious stolen icon is now safely back with the church after a key mediation role played by The Cyprus Weekly.

The late 18th century icon was handed over to the representative of the Church of Cyprus in Brussels by Dutch art dealer Michel van Rijn this week.

Van Rijn said he had bought the 53 cm by 35.5 cm icon at a private auction in England with the purpose of giving it back to the church.

It initially portrayed the ‘Small Deisis’ (prayer) – that is the Virgin Mary, Christ and John the Baptist, only the left-hand side depicting the prophet is missing.

“Mr. Van Rijn came here today and gave us the icon, which had been cut and its left side portraying John the Baptist is missing,” Bishop Porfyrios told The Cyprus Weekly.

“He said he had bought at an auction in London with the purpose of returning it to the Church of Cyprus. Van Rijn had proof with him, that he bought it at an auction in London,” he added.

The icon is post-Byzantine and belongs to the school of Ayios Eraklidios.

“It is certain that it was plundered from the occupied areas because its theft has not been reported in the government controlled areas. Research will be carried out to see where exactly it was stolen from in the occupied areas,” he added.

The bishop said he was overjoyed the icon has been returned to the Church of Cyprus but saddened that the part portraying John the Baptist was missing.

“We hope Mr. van Rijn’s gesture will serve as an example to others who have in their hands works of art and precious objects belonging to the Church of Cyprus. We are very happy that the icon has been returned and we hope others will imitate this example,” Porfyrios added.

The recovery of the icon is a rare ‘happy-end’ story in which The Cyprus Weekly paid a small, but crucial role.

Since the invasion of 1974, thousands of precious religious relics have been plundered in the Turkish occupied north, some to reappear in international auctions or be subjected to high profile legal battles.

Others remain stashed in private collections abroad as smugglers await an opportunity to ‘launder’ their loot.

The church was tipped off about this icon by us after Van Rijn sent an email to us a month ago saying he wanted to hand it over. He gave no other details, other than say that he had information about other stolen Greek Cypriot icons exhibited in private museums abroad.

The Weekly contacted the Archbishopric, which in turn put us in contact with Porfyrios who handles matters related to religious treasures stolen from Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries in the occupied areas.

Within weeks arrangements were made, with Van Rijn handing over the icon to Porfyrios and van Rijn in Brussels on Wednesday.

“I bought this beautiful icon at a private auction in the English countryside with the aim of returning it to its rightful owner, the Church of Cyprus and I handed the icon over to his excellency bishop Porfyrios today.

“ It was classified as a Russian icon in the auction. I want to establish a new relationship with the Church of Cyprus for getting back some of its stolen religious treasures,” van Rjhn told us, after his meeting.

Van Rijn said that he knows the whereabouts of about 70-75 major Greek Orthodox religious pieces that have been looted from Cyprus.

Byzantologist Athanasios Papageorgiou, who saw a picture of the icon, said that in his opinion it was late 18th early 19th century. He said the icon was stolen from the occupied areas, but was not yet in a position to say from which church.

There is no official inventory of the icons and religious objects that have been stolen from the occupied areas, he said.

Porfyrios and Papageorgiou were not in a position to value the icon.

An estimated 20,000 priceless icons, frescoes, mosaics, sacred vessels, books and manuscripts have been stolen from around 500 Christian Orthodox monasteries and churches in the Turkish held north during and after the Turkish invasion in 1974.

A number of them have been sold on the illicit art trade market abroad.

So far only, around 30 icons have been returned to their rightful owner, the Church of Cyprus, excluding those in the collections of the notorious Turkish art smuggler Aydin Dikmen.

Dikmen’s apartments in Munich were raided by Interpol and Bavarian police in 1997 and astonishing Cypriot treasures from at least 50 looted churches in occupied Cyprus were found.

They have been identified but not all could be matched due to lack of evidence. The raid by the Bavarian police in Munich occurred too late, since it is believed that a huge number of other treasures had already been channeled into the illicit art market.

The uncontrolled situation in the Turkish occupied north of Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion has fostered the development of a network of dealers in illicit antiquities whose aim was to sell our the island’s cultural heritage.

With the encouragement of the Turkish army, the trade of illicit antiquities has brought huge profits to dealers and Cypriot treasures now adorn private collections in many countries, like Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Holland, the UK, the US, Australia and Japan.

Seven icons and a set of royal doors were repatriated in December (2008) after they were found in private collections in Germany.

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