Lebanon has returned two 18th-century religious paintings to Greece. The works were finally uncovered after having been stolen 14 years earlier.
The two icons have been on an international notice call since unknown parties stole from the Agia Triada monastery in Thessaly, Greece, in 2006.
“The paintings were found after they were put on auction in October 2020 by an auction house in Germany, while still being in the possession of a Lebanese art dealer,” Konstantinos Chatzithomas, the Greek Embassy’s deputy head of missions, told The Daily Star. “Through the relevant catalogue, it was established that they were indeed the stolen paintings before the auction took place.
“Interpol accordingly notified the Lebanese authorities, who acted swiftly and seized the paintings,” he added. “They are already on the way back to the monastery where they belong. It is not yet known if they will need restoration before being displayed again.”
The Lebanese authorities have launched an investigation into how the unidentified art dealer acquired the artifacts and how they entered the country.
“These are unique, religious pieces that are essentially priceless,” Chatzithomas said. “The only way to put a price tag on them would be through the completion of the auction, which fortunately did not happen.
“The two paintings are of religious character, depicting Jesus Christ in ‘Pantocrator’ [“Almighty” or “all-powerful”] and the Virgin Mary in ‘Odigitria’ [or ‘Hodegetria,’ holding the infant Jesus while gesturing to him as savior] in the Orthodox iconographic style,” he added. “They date from 1735 and 1785 respectively.”
As noted, the two sacred icons have no official value, but similar Greek works from that era – such as a dozen stolen icons retrieved from two European art galleries in 2011 – could have fetched between $7,000 and $21,000, had the sale gone through.
Greece has retrieved several other religious icons worth thousands of dollars in recent years. Between 2000 and 2010, it’s said hundreds of paintings and artifacts were stolen from unguarded monasteries and churches in Greece’s sparsely populated Epirus region.
Tracking them down is an arduous task and is often a waiting game for objects to make it out of the black market and into more official channels, where discrepancies can be noticed.
Since its 1975-90 Civil War Lebanon itself has lost thousands of artifacts to looting, with only a few repatriations to date. Local authorities have made efforts to curb antiquities smuggling in recent years, requiring private collections to be listed and that more thorough checks of objects be carried out at ports and borders.
“Although incidents involving Greek antiquities and stolen artifacts are unfortunately not uncommon, this is the only known case in recent memory that is related to Lebanon,” Chatzithomas said. “Taking this opportunity, the embassy would like to commend the Lebanese authorities for their exemplary cooperation.”