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Attempted Art Heist In Cyprus

Over 11 million Euros' worth of artifacts intercepted.

11:06 AM, Jan 26, 2010 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Attempted Art Heist In Cyprus

Yesterday in Cyprus, police authorities arrested "the largest ever smuggling ring" in the island, including ten Cypriots (most likely Greek), one Syrian, and four others still unknown. They will face charges for "illegally possessing and trading in antiquities," as Menelaos Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia. The items found include Hellenistic and Roman coins, Copper Age terra cotta urns, most from southern towns on the coast, and miniature gold items, probably of Egyptian provenance—all in all, a stash estimated to fetch 11 million Euros, or $15.5 million. This is being called by the republic's authorities "the largest antiquities theft case of its kind in the Mediterranean island's history." Art experts are currently working to pinpoint the origins of all items, and several questions—such as the name of the intended buyer—remain unanswered.

This is an astounding story, and it makes one glad that this ring, which might be part of a larger, international organization, was busted before these artifacts, and maybe others down the line, were sold. To be sure, theft and illicit buying aren't always intercepted—or, they're known about once the items have been bought. The Church of Cyprus, for instance, lists the whereabouts of 16,000 Byzantine icons simply as "unknown." For a glimpse into what smuggling in Cyprus is like, read Michael Jansen's account in her 2005 book, War and Cultural Heritage (Univeristy of Minnesota Press). Built on the eyewitness accounts of an accomplice who turned himself in, the story tells of what happened to the 13th-century frescoes of Christ, Madonna, and angels gutted from a single chapel in Lysi, which are on view today at the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas, and will soon be repatriated. These frescoes were some of the luckier items, as they haven't suffered much physical damage and are currently protected.

Much of the fuss these days about the endangered state of cultural heritage in Cyprus is leveled against the northern part of the island, in the rogue state known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. (The dismantling of the frescoes from the chapel in Lysi occurred in this part of the island, for instance, when the chapel was within the bounds of a Turkish military camp. Today, it can be freely visited.) But Monday's great bust is an example to the contrary, of Cypriot-on-Cypriot smuggling and attempted selling. And as one archaeologist aptly put it on his informative, fair, and meticulous blog—which I recommend to anyone following these issues—"this local Cypriot looting and smuggling may be a greater crime than some of the notorious Turkish gangs' plunder of the island."

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