NICOSIA, Cyprus — An 18th-century icon that a British officer spirited out of war-wracked Cyprus in 1974 was returned Wednesday to the island’s Orthodox Church by the officer’s son to reunite it with those “who really appreciate what it stands for.”
A representative of the Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II received the icon during a ceremony at Geneva’s Villa Moynier which houses the Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
The Royal Air Force officer had been serving on Cyprus during the summer of 1974 when Turkey invaded and cleaved the island along ethnic lines in the wake of Greek junta-backed coup aiming at union with Greece.
The officer found the icon and took it back to Britain, where his son said it remained locked away “in a box for years.” The son, who wished to remain anonymous, said keeping it out of sight for so long “seemed such a waste” and thought it’s return would be “best for all concerned.”
“If only this picture could talk. It would have a great tale to tell about its creation and the joy it has given to many generations of worshippers,” the officer’s son wrote in a note. “It would also tell of the sorrows of the world, conflict and removal to another land for many years.”
He reached out to Professor Marc-Andre Renold who runs the Art-Law Centre of the University of Geneva and holds the UNESCO Chair in International Cultural Heritage Law.
Renold then contacted art historian Maria Paphiti — herself involved in the repatriation of several looted religious artworks — who coordinated the icon’s handover with the Cyprus Church.
Renold said the icon’s “smooth and transparent” return was the result of the son’s wish to “do the right thing.” Paphiti said the icon’s return is a cause for celebration but also for “contemplation for the thousands of artworks that are illegally trafficked.”
The Cyprus Church has for decades tried to track down numerous religious icons, mosaics and frescoes stolen from hundreds of abandoned churches and monasteries in the island’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and sold abroad.