CYPRUS: Looted mosaic from Panayia Kanakaria returns home

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A mosaic depicting Apostle Mark, that was looted from Turkish occupied Panayia Kanakaria church in the village of Lythragomi, returned to Cyprus on Sunday.

The mosaic was handed over by a Dutch art investigator during a ceremony that took place in the Netherlands and was brought to Cyprus by a delegation of the Antiquities Department and the Church of Cyprus .

Minister of Transport, Communications and Works, Vasiliki Anastasiadou told the Cyprus News Agency that the mosaic was brought back, expressing her satisfaction over this development.

She said the return of the mosaic was made possible after coordinated efforts of the state and the Church.

Anastasiadou stressed that the process for the return of the mosaic took place according to the relevant legislation of the Republic, adding that the mosaic will be restored by the Department of Antiquities. A delegation from the Antiquities Department that went to the Hague verified the authenticity of this art treasure.

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand told the Agence France Presser Agency (AFP) on Friday that he handed back the sixth century depiction of Saint Mark during a private ceremony at the Cypriot embassy in The Hague.

For Brand the handover was a highpoint in his life-long interest in the Byzantine saint — and the result of a nearly two-year chase across Europe.

"This is a very special piece that`s more than 1,600 years old. It`s one of the last and most beautiful examples of art from the early Byzantine era," he told AFP.

After getting a tip from a prominent London art dealer, Brand travelled to Monaco in August. Through a series of intermediaries — including several in the underground world — Brand finally traced the missing mosaic to an apartment in the upscale city-state.

"It was in the possession of a British family, who bought the mosaic in good faith more than four decades ago," Brand said.

"They were horrified when they found out that it was in fact a priceless art treasure, looted from the Kanakaria Church after the Turkish invasion," Brand added.

The family agreed to return it "to the people of Cyprus" in return for a small fee to cover restoration and storage costs.

A week ago, Brand — who was working with the Church of Cyprus — returned to Monaco to collect the treasure, said to be worth five to 10 million euros.

World culture

"The mosaics of Kanakaria are of immense importance in Christian art and world culture," Maria Paphiti, a former department head at British auction house Christie`s told AFP.

The ensemble "is among a handful of artworks that escaped the menace of Byzantine iconoclasm" in the eighth and ninth century, Paphiti said.

Twelve mosaic fragments have been returned so far, notably one depicting the Apostle Andrew — which Paphiti discovered among a collection of artworks in 2014.

In 1989, four fragments depicting the upper part of Christ, two apostles and an archangel were handed back after a high-profile case in Indianapolis.

Most of the mosaic fragments were recovered between 1983 and 2015, Paphiti said, but some pieces are still missing, including the lower part of Christ`s body.

"This is truly one of the last outstanding pieces to be returned," Brand said. "It is incredible to think that this piece of art survived for so long. It’s part of the Cypriot peoples’ soul," he added.

With the encouragement and help of the Turkish army, the trade in illicit antiquities has brought great profit to those involved, and Cypriot treasures already adorn private collections in a number of countries including Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Holland and the UK, and even as far as the US, Australia and Japan.

More than 500 churches situated in the areas under Turkish occupation since 1974 have been destroyed, plundered and looted or turned into stables, warehouses, restaurants and hotels.