HAGUE - The four icons of the Apostles John, Mark, Paul and Peter stolen from the occupied monastery of Antifonitis near Kalogrea village in Kyrenia were returned to Cyprus after an 18-year legal battle yesterday.
The icons were delivered to Cyprus’ ambassador in Holland Kyriakos Kouros during a low key signing ceremony in The Hague and will be flown to the island tomorrow.
The announcement for their return was made at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, on the sidelines of a conference titled “Illicit art trafficking and restitution”.
The meeting was organised by Walk of Truth, an organisation campaigning for the preservation of cultural heritage.
“The return of the icons is a very significant victory in the battle for the repatriation of stolen religious treasures from Cyprus,” the representative of the church of Cyprus in Brussels, Neapolis bishop Porfyrios told The Cyprus Daily on the telephone from The Hague yesterday.
The 16th century icons portraying the four apostles were valued at €150,000 and are believed to have been taken from the medieval Antifonitis monastery in the aftermath of the Turkish invasion in 1975.
Legal efforts by the Church of Cyprus to recover the icons failed, as the court ruled they had been bought in “good faith” in 1971. A change in Dutch law in 2007 allowed the government to go ahead and seize them.
The Lans couple had bought the four icons from an Armenian art collector in Rotterdam.
After the elderly couple passed away, their heirs in 1995 approached Cyprus’ honorary consul to The Hague at the time and Walk of Truth founder Tasoula Hadjitofi requesting payment of €400,000 in return for the icons.
Tasoula arranged for a court order to seize the icons following independent confirmation of their origin in 1995.
A lengthy court case established that the icons were original and had been in Cyprus until August 1974.
A Rotterdam district court ruled in favour of the private holders whilst recognising the church of Cyprus as the rightful owner due to a statute of limitations under Dutch law.
The Court of Appeals found that the claim was time-barred under statutes of limitations in 2002, according to an Amsterdam lawyer representing the Church of Cyprus in the legal battle Rob Pollak.
This was the first case to test the “Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict”. Tasoula Hadjitofi told The Cyprus Daily: “I think we should congratulate the Netherlands for testing their legislation and amending it accordingly to give the icons back to Cyprus.”
“This is an example of where the letter of the law fails and the spirit of the law prevails.
“The example of the Netherlands should be an example for every country to follow and it comes very timely to give hope to the people of Cyprus that the whole world is not against them,” she said.
Last July, a German court handed over to the Cypriot authorities 173 frescoes, mosaics and icons looted from churches, museums and monasteries in occupied Cyprus.
They had been discovered along with other items in the Munich apartment of Turkish art smuggler Aydin Dikmen in 1997 and were valued at €12.7 million at the time.
The religious items included a mosaic looted from the sixth century Kanakaria church and a fresco from the Antifonitis church.
There are around 550 Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries in the occupied areas (including 50 in military zones) most of which have been seriously looted during and after the Turkish invasion.
More than 20,000 icons and priceless religious treasures have been stolen from these places of worship and sold on the illicit art trade.