A medieval ivory icon disappeared during war in Georgia, ‘miraculously reappeared at Christie’s’ in Switzerland

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) judged that the case constituted (or symbolised) one of the ‘basic events’ of war and peace in the Caucasus at the time. I learned of it through the Museum Security Network (MSN).

Background

During the South Ossetian War (also known as the First South Ossetia War), between the 5th of January 1991 and the 24th of June 1992 (which had been prefaced by intercommunal violence in 1989 and 1990), around 1,000 were killed, around 100 were disappeared and many more than 100,000 were displaced; furthermore, nearly 100 villages were expelled, looted, burned and/or bulldozed.

Disappearance and surfacing

The uniquely well-preserved, eleventh-century, three-fold ivory icon – the Kornisi/Znauri (Okoni) Triptych or Tskhinval/Ossetian Triptych (identified by the Georgian and Ossetian names for its original village and region) – was kept in a chapel until 1924 then conserved in the Tskhinval State Museum until 1991. The central panel portrays the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist.

In the midst of the 1991-1992 war, the icon was looted from the museum. Though the timeframe of his reference was unclear, after its recovery, Orthodox Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilie II commented that the icon was one of ‘many holy things‘ that had been ‘taken abroad’. According to the the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR),

Museum employee Sergei Chibirov blames the Georgian side for its theft. “In January 1991 the part of Tskhinval where the museum is located was occupied by the Georgian police…. The triptych was then being exhibited in the most prominent place. When we were able to get back to the building a few days later we found that this, the most valuable exhibit, as well as several daggers in silver scabbards and ancient coins, had disappeared.”
For their part the Georgian side accused “Ossetian fighters” of carrying out the theft.

As reaffirmed by events in Ukraine, necessarily or unnecessarily equivocal claims about cultural property can persist in the fog of war and completely false claims can be used to advance a cause in conflict. Theoretically, the icon may have been looted by opportunistic entrepreneurs or organised criminals. But it is obviously impossible to work on the assumption that the truth is the opposite of any claim (or indeed of all claims).

A decade later, the icon surfaced on the international antiquities market, with a valuation of two million dollars ($2m). It ‘miraculously reappeared‘ at Christie’s auction house in Geneva, Switzerland. It had a suitably murky new collecting history. A Russian man with one name, Zemlyanikov (Земляников), claimed that he had bought it from a person with neither name nor gender, ‘a stranger in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia [Russia]’.

Return, restoration and retention

Christie’s-contracted Byzantinologist Krasimira Plackova had studied the icon in the museum, so she identified its source and Geneva court judge Carol Barbel (eventually) ordered its return to the successor to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia from which it had been looted, the Republic of Georgia (not to the autonomous region, and internationally-unrecognised secessionist state, of the Republic of South Ossetia).

Despite the protestations of both foreign ministries, IWPR reporters in Georgia and South Ossetia – Eter Mamulashvili and Elina Bestayeva – found that neither Tblisi Museum not Tskhinval Museum would be able to guarantee reliable conservation for the icon (though professional capacity does not determine property rights).

When Switzerland returned the icon to the government of Georgia, on the 26th of May 2004, President Mikhail Saakashvili stated that it might be returned to the museum in South Ossetia if security were guaranteed.

Notably, perhaps, the return was performed in neither the Ministry of Culture, Monuments Protection and Sports, nor the Tbilisi State Arts Museum, nor the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church, but the Foreign Ministry, where Foreign Minister Salome Zourabishvili ‘stressed that protection of Georgia’s cultural heritage would become a direction in the Foreign Ministry’s activity‘.

According to Georgia, South Ossetian-controlled Kornisi/Znauri is part of the Georgian-defined Kareli district of the Shida Kartli region, the capital of which is Georgian-controlled Gori. According to South Ossetia, Kornisi/Znauri is part of the South Ossetian-defined Znaur district. The icon is still in Tblisi Museum, while a replica has been given to Gori.

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