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Looted ikons

20 January 2011

In various conflicts around the world one of the things that happens is that churches are pillaged, and things like ikons are looted. Occasionally, however, they are returned to their rightful home, as in this story: BBC News – Boy George returns Christ icon to Cyprus church:

Musician Boy George has agreed to return to the Church of Cyprus an icon of Christ that came into his possession 11 years after the Turkish invasion.

The former Culture Club singer bought the piece from a London art dealer in 1985 without knowing its origin.

Boy George – real name George O’Dowd – said he was ‘happy the icon is going back to its original rightful home’.

In 1974, the year of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, there were also political upheavals in Ethiopia, and in 1994 some ikons and other things that had clearly been looted from churches turned up in a fleamarket in Hatfield, Pretoria.

Looted ikons in a fleamarket in Pretoria

We asked about the prices, but could not afford to buy even one. We would like to have bought the whole lot and tried to find a way to return them to the churches from which they had been stolen.

Crosses as African curios

We wondered about the people who did actually buy such things, and clearly lots of people did, because when we visited later a lot of the church items had gone. Ikons and crosses were not the only thing; there were also well-used liturgical books, presumably in Ge’ez, and censers that appeared to have been home-made.

Looted crosses at Hatfield fleamarket

Anyway, kudos to Boy George for returning stolen property. Would that others would do the same.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Graham permalink
    20 January 2011 8:30 am

    This is very sad, that such things (as stolen artefacts landing up in South African fleamarkets of all places) can happen in this day and age. Isn’t there some way of proving where these icons came from, and opening a case? I’m not saying criminally charge the people selling them, if they themselves have no idea where the items came from, but some legal recourse to get them confiscated (perhaps compensating the current owners a little, if they themselves have no idea where the items came from), and getting them back to the churches from which they were stolen?

    I mean, it’s no different from a valuable piece of artwork being stolen from the Louvre (for argument’s sake). Even if the current owner doesn’t know its value, it’s worth more than he could possibly image. And it was stolen, so the museum would want it back. How are church icons different?

    • 21 January 2011 8:27 am

      It was 15 years ago that they were on sale, and it is probably far too late to try to do anything about it. Back then the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was not properly organised in South Africas, but if it were, I would have suggested that they approach the people at the fleamarket stall and ask them about the provenance of the ikons and other church materials.

  2. 20 January 2011 8:38 pm

    If only it were easier to track the sources of such things :-/. Even in Ethiopia, however, it can be hard to do so. How does one know the seller’s suppliers bought icons new from an icon workshop at a monastery instead of stealing them from a country church? Everything is irrelevant to someone trying to feed their families in a bad economy that’s been bad for decades – real age, origin, actual value/cost, et cetera.

    • 21 January 2011 8:31 am

      The censers and liturgical books had clearly been in use at some time, and certainly weren’t bought new. I suspect that they were looted by soldiers of the Derg.

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