Will Cyprus sell repatriated antiquities at auction? No.

Will it buy looted antiquities at auction in order to repatriate them? Yes.

The Committee for Cultural Policy (CCP) has apparently misunderstood a(n albeit poorly phrased) report and mistakenly announced that Cyprus will sell repatriated artifacts at auction. It will not. It will buy them. And, in real terms, it won’t even pay any (more) money to do so – it will write off unpaid debts that would otherwise remain unpaid.

It is an odd case. When I read the CCP’s headline, it immediately struck me as incredible. So I looked, and I immediately saw that it was wrong. It would seem natural to assume that the obvious error was due to a lack of interest and/or research by the CCP.

Yet the case is an exemplar of cultural policy issues. And the Committee for Cultural Policy did do some research – it found and used a four-year-old post on my disused blog on Cultural Heritage in Conflict (though seemingly not the even older post from which the Committee’s chosen quote ultimately came) and my doctoral thesis (which is hosted on this blog) as well (though seemingly not the year-old post where I asked, wouldn’t it be better for collectors and dealers to restrict themselves to the 145-year-old market in licensed antiquities from Cyprus?). So…

What went wrong?

Reviewing the evidence concerning undocumented antiquities that had been confiscated from Turkish heroin-and-antiquities smuggler Aydın Dikmen, a German court judged that there was not enough evidence that 49 of the antiquities were Cypriot, so they could not be given to the Republic of Cyprus.

The Committee for Cultural Policy then relayed that the ‘Cyprus Law Office says that Dikmen owes more than 500,000 euros for legal expenses and that it will place the [49] items for auction to pay these costs‘. But Cyprus doesn’t have possession of those items. It has been denied possession of those items.

The CCP’s source, Greek Reporter, explicitly stated that the court had decided that the ’49 items (icons of Russian styled art and prehistoric antiquities) should be returned to the Turkish smuggler‘. The CCP itself stated that those antiquities would be ‘returned to Dikmen for lack of evidence’.

How could Cyprus auction things that it did not have? Even if the CCP had only read the one, poorly phrased report, why didn’t it notice that this claim was physically impossible?

And, while there are sometimes strange and unfortunate consequences to such actions, did the CCP think that Cyprus would spend half-a-million euros to recover looted antiquities in order to prevent them disappearing into the international antiquities market, then promptly sell them onto the international antiquities market in order to cover the cost of recovering them?

Didn’t the CCP have any appreciation of the religious-national(ist) campaign for the repatriation of these antiquities, the cultural value of their recovery or the political cost of any sale?

It must have had. Previously, one of its board members, former art curator Gary Vikan, testified in court for the Republic of Cyprus and the Church of Cyprus to recover other antiquities that had been looted by Dikmen. Vikan’s expertise made a significant contribution to the successful recovery of the Kanakaria mosaics from Peg Goldberg and George Feldman’s fine arts dealership.

What actually happened?

Greek Reporter relayed that the ‘Cypriot Law Office noted that these will not be returned to Dikmen since they are expected to be put up for auction by the Republic of Cyprus‘. As I have already said, that was poorly phrased. Greek Reporter meant to say, “they are expected, by the Republic of Cyprus, to be put up for auction”; in other words, “the Republic of Cyprus expects them to be put up for auction”. Regardless, the facts of the matter have been explained clearly and repeatedly elsewhere.

Journalist Elias Hazou explained that ‘Cyprus plans to recover the 49 other artefacts via a separate process with the Munich municipal court, which is expected to put… these items up for auction’; the German court is expected to auction the antiquities to cover Dikmen’s unpaid debts.

The President of the Synodical Committee for Monuments and Art of the Church of Cyprus, Bishop Porfyrios, detailed that the ‘Republic will not pay anything extra if it recovers these items through the auction, because the amount will be offset against the €0.5m in fines which Dikmen has previously been ordered to pay the Church’.

Likewise, via the Association of the Balkan News Agencies Southeast Europe (ABNASE), the Cyprus News Agency (CNA) explained that

the remaining 49 treasures, mostly icons of Russian styled art and prehistoric antiquities,…. will not be returned to the Turkish smuggler since they are expected to be put up for auction during which they will be recovered by the Republic with no extra cost since the Turkish smuggler already owes the Republic an amount exceeding 500,000 euros for legal expenses.

The Cyprus Mail explained that, ‘long before the court’s decision’, the Republic of Cyprus had ‘pre-emptively initiated another legal process to ensure retrieval of the 49 items’. ‘As such, these relics are not to be returned to Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikmen. Rather, they are to be auctioned for an amount up to the €0.5m awarded to the Republic for legal expenses in its protracted litigation against Dikmen.’

Will it? No. Does it? No.

Working around to the point of its piece, the CCP summarised that

The US has executed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cyprus that prohibits importation of ancient and ecclesiastic art in order to discourage looting in Cyprus.

It does not. As has been explicitly stated in the publicly-accessible text of the bilateral memorandum since its earliest version in 2002, it prohibits importation ‘unless the Government of the Republic of Cyprus issues a certification or other documentation which certifies that such exportation was not in violation of its laws’.

As was stated in the publicly-accessible text of a unilateral restriction on importation of Byzantine cultural property from Cyprus between 1999 and 2006 (when the bilateral memorandum was amended to encompass Byzantine objects as well), that too prohibited importation ‘unless accompanied by documentation certifying that the material left Cyprus legally and not in violation of the laws of Cyprus’.

The Committee for Cultural Policy must have been aware of that fact. Another of its board members, Arthur Houghton, has also been a board member of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI).

Furthermore, those restrictions do not apply to antiquities that were exported from Cyprus before their implementation. As has been explained by the United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, would-be importers need only show that the antiquities ‘left Cyprus prior to the effective date of the restriction’.

The Committee for Cultural Policy must also have been aware of that fact. Yet another of its board members, Peter Tompa, is also a board member of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), which has long had access to and itself shared a statement from the Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Dina H. Powell, who recorded that

Importation of such material continues to be restricted unless accompanied by appropriate export certification issued by the Government of the Republic of Cyprus or documentation exists establishing that exportation from Cyprus occurred prior to July 16, 2002 [with respect to pre-Classical and Classical archaeological objects]; prior to July 16, 2007 with respect to coins; or, with respect specifically to Byzantine period ethnological material, that exportation occurred prior to April 12, 1999.

Likewise, importation of post-Byzantine material from Cyprus is exempt from these restrictions when documentation exists that establishes that exportation from Cyprus occurred prior to July 16, 2012.

The United States absolutely protects the importation of legally-documented antiquities from Cyprus, which has provided legal documentation for antiquities’ sale and export for the past 146 years. Even if it is only counted from the establishment of a (public-and-private) double-documentation system, there has been a doubly-secure, legally-documented supply for 80 years. And older antiquities, then, would have more than 80 years of commercial paperwork as well as their original licences.

The United States only prohibits the importation of antiquities from Cyprus that do not have any official documentation or any commercial documentation that – depending on their type – they have been on the international market for at least sixteen, thirteen, eight or three years.

Understanding, misunderstanding and incomprehension

Did the CCP convince itself of the nonsensical statement because the nonsense was convenient? Its post had a clear point:

The proposed sale of repatriated antiquities appears to contradict the “no export, no trade” position asserted by Cypriot authorities in requesting a continuing agreement with the US prohibiting import of similar items by US collectors or museums.

Presumably, now that the Committee for Cultural Policy knows that there is no proposed sale of repatriated antiquities, and thus no contradiction in the position of the Republic of Cyprus, it will support the continuation of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Republic of Cyprus and the United States of America.

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