The priceless sixth-century artifact, looted in a Turkish invasion, was found after a two-year chase across Europe.
One of the last missing pieces of Byzantine art stolen from Cyprus in the 1970s has been handed back to the country by a renowned Dutch art investigator.
The investigator, Arthur Brand, said on Friday that he handed back the sixth-century depiction of Saint Mark during a private ceremony at the Cypriot embassy in The Hague.
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 lifelong 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.
Brand showed the mosaic to the AFP news agency hours before it was handed back.
The Cypriot embassy and Church of Cyprus declined AFP’s request for comment when asked about the mosaic, while the Cypriot Department of Antiquities did not respond to phone calls.
After getting a tip from a prominent London-based 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 AFP.
“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,” he 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, believed to be worth five to 10 million euros ($5.7-$11m)
“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 again made headlines a year later for helping to recover five stolen masterpieces from a criminal group in Ukraine.
Religious artefacts, including mosaics, were hewn from the church walls in northern Cyprus following an invasion by Turkish forces in 1974.
They included a set of mosaics taken from the Panayia Kanakaria church, about 105km northeast of Nicosia.
Many pieces ended up in the underground world of art smuggling and went missing for years, while the Cyprus government and church campaigned ceaselessly to recover them.
“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 told AFP.
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 the city of Indianapolis in the United States.
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.
St Mark is expected to return to the Mediterranean island within the coming days.
German police made a major breakthrough in the recovery of stolen Cypriot art in 1997, when they raided the home of convicted Turkish art dealer, Ayden Dikmen, in Munich.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded and seized its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup to unite the island with Greece.
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