Missing St Mark mosaic finally returns to Cyprus

  • 18 Nov 2018

The mosaic depicting a youthful St Mark was one of several pieces of Byzantine artefacts looted from the Church of Panayia Kanakaria after Cyprus split into ethnic Greek and Turkish sides in 1974.

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand poses with the missing mosaic of St Mark, a rare piece of stolen Byzantine art from Cyprus, in a hotel room in The Hague on November 17, 2018. ( AFP )

One of the last missing pieces of Byzantine art stolen from Cyprus in the 1970s was handed back this week by a renowned, and proud Dutch art investigator.

The communications minister of Cyprus says a rare sixth-century portrait mosaic of St Mark which was looted from an Orthodox Christian church more than four decades ago has returned intact to the Mediterranean island nation.

Minister Vassiliki Anastassiadou said the mosaic arrived in Cyprus on Sunday. It was given earlier to church and government officials at the country's embassy in the Netherlands.

Arthur Brand said Friday he handed back the sixth-century depiction of Saint Mark to Greek Cypriots. 

For Brand, dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the art world" because of his exploits to recover stolen works, the handover was a high point in his life-long interest in the Byzantine saint. And the result of a nearly two-year chase across Europe.

"This is a very special piece that's more than 1,600 years old.

It's one of the last and most beautiful examples of art from the early Byzantine era," said the art sleuth.

He showed the mosaic hours before it was handed back.

 'Greatest moment'

After getting a tip from a prominent London art dealer, Brand travelled to Monaco in August.

Through a series of intermediaries — including several in the underground world — Brand finally traced the missing mosaic to an apartment in the upscale city-state.

"It was in the possession of a British family, who bought the mosaic in good faith more than four decades ago," Brand told.

"They were horrified when they found out that it was, in fact, a priceless art treasure, looted from the Kanakaria Church after the Turkish invasion," Brand said.

The family agreed to return it "to the people of Cyprus" in return for a small fee to cover restoration and storage costs, he added.

A week ago, Brand — who was working with the Church of Cyprus — returned to Monaco to collect the treasure, said to be worth five to $5.7-$11 million (10 million euros).

"It was one of the greatest moments of my life," the detective said.

In 2015, Brand won world fame after finding two massive bronze statues made by Nazi sculptor Joseph Thorak that are referred to as "Hitler's Horses".

He made headlines again a year later for helping to recover five stolen masterpieces from a criminal group in Ukraine.

Looted art

Religious artefacts including mosaics were hewn from the church walls in northern Cyprus after the island split into ethnic Greek and Turkish sides in 1974.

They included a set of mosaics taken from the Panayia Kanakaria church, about 105 kilometres (65 miles) northeast of Nicosia.

Many pieces ended up in the underground world of art smuggling and went missing for many years.

"The mosaics of Kanakaria are of immense importance in Christian art and world culture," said Maria Paphiti, a former department head at British auction house Christie's.

The ensemble "is among a handful of artworks that escaped the menace of Byzantine iconoclasm" in the eighth and ninth century, Paphiti, an art historian and world authority on Byzantine art said.

'Last missing pieces' 

Twelve mosaic fragments have been returned so far, notably one depicting the Apostle Andrew — which Paphiti discovered among a collection of artworks in 2014.

In 1989, four fragments depicting the upper part of Christ, two apostles and an archangel were handed back after a high-profile case in Indianapolis.

Most of the mosaic fragments were recovered between 1983 and 2015, Paphiti said, but some pieces are still missing, including the lower part of Christ's body.

"This is truly one of the last outstanding pieces to be returned," said Brand.

"It is incredible to think that this piece of art survived for so long. It's part of the Cypriot peoples' soul," he added.