Cyprus: return of tens of millions’ worth of conflict antiquities, looted from churches in occupied areas

In 1997, Munich police found 232 artworks (1) in the possession of Turkish antiquities smuggler Aydın Dikmen. Munich’s Higher Regional Court has ruled to return 172 or 173 pieces (2), tens of millions’ worth (3) of mosaics, frescoes, icons, paintings, manuscripts and other objects of art (Fresken, Ikonen und andere Kunstgegenstände) to the Republic of Cyprus and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, the Syriac Maronite Church and the Armenian Catholic Church (via @rechtsarche).

Cyprus gets back millions’ worth of treasure [Zypern bekommt Millionenschatz zurück]

There are a few reasons why it took such a long time to conclude the case. First, there were difficulties in making a criminal case: the key informant (and mastermind of and lead in the police sting operation), Dutch art smuggler-dealer Michel van Rijn, received death threats, so he didn’t testify. Then, there were difficulties in making a civil case: the art had to be proved to have been removed from churches in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion.

Finally, after the 23rd September 2010 ruling, there was a frivolous appeal: despite the fact that the property was found ‘hidden inside the walls and under the floorboards in two apartments kept by Dikmen in Munich, under false names’ (in 1997), Dikmen made an appeal for the religious art to be declared his wife’s dowry; but the court eventually rejected it.

Additional detail

As well as van Rijn, Archbishop Chrysostomos I, then Honorary Consul to the Netherlands Tasoula Georgiou-Hadjitofi and the Cypriot police supported the German police; and (British) Channel 4 recorded the sting.

The rescued art had been stolen from 51 different churches (out of at least 505 Christian buildings in the occupied areas). It included pieces of mosaics from Panagia Kanakaria, and fragments of wall paintings from Panagia Apsidiotissa, Panagia Pergaminiotissa, Agia Solomoni and Antiphonitis.

Greek Cypriot Byzantinist Athanasios Papageorgiou (I believe not, as the Cyprus Mail called him, “Athanasios Georgiou”) long ago catalogued the material. And German Byzantinist Johannes Deckers long ago confirmed that ‘at least half of the list was undoubtedly from Cyprus‘. But until this decision, the German courts had not felt able to return the demonstrably Cypriot material without proof of the source of the rest of the material.

Dikmen has been ordered to return ninety-thousand Deutsche marks, not ‘more than 90,000 artifacts.

Still, it’s a little confusing. If the police seized ‘thousands of large and small artefacts, of which the most important part originated in Cyprus’, why were only 232 identified as Cypriot? Does that mean the most important pieces (but not the most numerous) were Cypriot? Or does that mean thousands of (very possibly Cypriot) artefacts were unidentifiable and untraceable, and had to be treated as legally-acquired?

Dikmen had around six thousand artefacts, antiques and artworks in his German properties; 1,100 of those were Turkish, so perhaps the other 4,900 were Cypriot. He also had at least (and certainly more than) 600 Turkish antiquities stored in Konya Museum.

Having lost his collector’s permit, seemingly using his wife Konstantina Dikmen’s antiquities licence, he transported the unconfiscated/released objects (as air freight) from Germany to Turkey and deposited them in Konya Museum. Then, he donated those objects to the Science and Literature Museum at Selçuk University in Konya (Turkey).


1: According to the 23rd September 2010 court decision, 232 artworks were found in Dikmen’s properties (not 214 or 422).

2: The article said both that 232 objects were found but 60 would not be returned (so 172 would be returned), and that 173 would be returned (so 59 would not be returned); either way, the ‘vast majority [überwiegende Teil]’ will be restituted to Cyprus.

3: Estimates vary, but they centre around €30m/$40m.


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