Confronting Complexity in the Preservation of Cultural Property: Monuments, Art, Antiquities, Archives, and History-What Can Cyprus Teach Us?

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In this brief presentation, I will try to provide some useful thoughts on "Confronting Complexity in the Preservation of Cultural Property: Monuments, Art, Antiquities, Archives, and History" based on my almost 25 years of working with the Republic and the Church of Cyprus in protecting the cultural heritage of Cyprus.


When we refer to something as "cultural property," we mean that it has taken on some special meaning, whether religious or secular, beyond its monetary or artistic value. The term is well defined in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which states that: "the term 'cultural property' means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science."

Recent experience has reinforced the message that cultural property, because of its special meaning, is at risk of looting or destruction for any of a number of reasons: the Bamiyan Buddhas due to intolerance and hatred; the Iraq National Museum, Library, and archeological sites due to civil unrest and turmoil resulting from war and military occupation; as well as the inability or unwillingness of an occupation government to protect locations of cultural significance. High-value objects taken from sites in Italy (the famous Aphrodite/Persephone returned to Italy by the John Paul Getty Foundation) and Greece (the equally well-known funerary wreath also returned by the Getty) demonstrate that even stable Western democracies cannot protect all of their cultural resources from looters without international cooperation. The problem is magnified for Cyprus, which was invaded by Turkey in 1974 and has seen pervasive looting of churches, museums, private collections, and archeological sites in the area that Turkey has occupied and kept beyond the reach of the government and the church since then.


I will talk briefly about the Lysi frescoes, which I did not work on; the Kanakaria mosaics, where I was lead counsel for the Church and the Republic in litigation in Indianapolis, Indiana; and a few smaller matters I have helped with. I will also make some observations about Cyprus's overall approach to international efforts in the protection of cultural property, particularly in its relations with the United States, and to assess where Cyprus stands now and what lessons can be drawn from its experience.

We start with a tale of two churches: the Church of Ayios Themonianos in Lysi and the Church of Panagia Kanakaria, both in the Turkish-occupied area. The appearance of the Lysi Frescoes on the international black market was the first major incident after the 1974 invasion. Historical photographs show the original fresco of Christ Pantocrator from 1972 as it looked in the church building. Another photograph--one that I cannot vouch for--which appears in the book Hot Art, Cold Cash by notorious Dutch art dealer Michel van Rijn shows the same fresco with lines drawn on it by Aydin Dikman, believed to be the most active smuggler who operated in occupied Cyprus. Supposedly Dikman marked these lines on the photograph to show how he would cut the fresco apart to make pieces for export.

Dominique de Menil of the Menil Foundation learned that the frescoes were available for purchase from a smuggler in Munich who would not allow his identity to be revealed to Cyprus, and who threatened to sell the frescoes to various buyers if the Menil Foundation did not buy them. Recognizing that the Church of Cyprus had title to the frescoes, Menil acquired, conserved, and exhibited them in Houston, Texas, on long-term loan from the Church. The frescoes have been exhibited as part of a consecrated chapel within the museum, serving as goodwill ambassadors for Cyprus and the Church. …


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