From Cyprus to Houston: The Perilous Journey of Lysi's Stolen Frescoes

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From Cyprus to Houston: The Perilous Journey of Lysi's Stolen Frescoes

IN 1982, TURKISH CYPRIOT journalist Mehmet Yasin reported in the weekly newsmagazine Olay that Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikman had been detained by security officials in the northern Cypriot town of Kyrenia and was on a police list of antiquities smugglers. Nearly nine years later, Dikman finally was arrested in Munich, following an elaborate sting operation involving his former partner, Michel van Rijn, a Dutch art dealer who claims to be descended from both Rembrandt and Rubens, and who previously had been convicted in France of forging Chagall's signature.

In Dikman's possession, according to The New York Times, were 140 icons, 10 fragments of Byzantine frescoes, silver crosses, prayer books and 250 other religious treasures looted from Orthodox churches and monasteries in northern Cyprus.

Two frescoes not among Dikman's holdings in Europe, because they previously had been purchased from him -- and can now be seen at the de Menil Foundation's Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, Texas. The lengths -- and expense -- to which foundation president Dominique de Menil went to acquire, restore and exhibit the masterpieces gives rome indication of the scope of the theft and destruction involved.

An art patron and noted collector of Byzantine art, in 1983 de Menil flew to Munich to inspect personally two Byzantine frescoes which London art dealer Yanni Petsopoulos had alerted her were for sale. Along with her foundation's curator and director, as well as her personal assistant, she and Petsopoulos rendezvoused in a Munich hotel with Dikman, who told the group he had discovered the frescoes while excavating in southern Turkey.

Suspicious about Dikman's story, upon her return to the U.S. de Menil requested a search for the fresco's true owners. Letters of inquiry were sent to the embassies of nine countries, and Cyprus was able to document that the 13th century frescoes were from the Church of St. Themonianos outside the village of Lysi in northern Cyprus. …