The Return of the Holy Doors of St Anastasios from the Kanazawa College of Art.

AuthorGiorgallis, Andreas

Cypriot archeological, historical and religious treasures can be admired today in foreign museums and collections around the world. Part of that cultural wealth left the island as a result of the unprecedented looting and dispersal which reached its apogee at two particular time-periods of Cypriot history: 1) the period between 1865 and 1876 when Luigi Palma Di Cesnola served as American Consul in the island (1) and 2) in the aftermath of the 1974 Turkish Invasion. (2) One recent story evoking memories of the extent of the island's despoliation is the return of the Holy Doors of St Anastasios from a Japanese university, the Kanazawa College of Art.


The Doors date from the last quarter of the eighteenth century, having been commissioned, according to an inscription, at the expense of a resident from Peristeronopigi village. (3) The Doors are made of pine and are decorated with a layer of gold. The latter surrounds two richly painted panels depicting religious scenes. The upper panel portrays the Annunciation while the Three Hierarchs along with St Spyridon complete the part below (Figure 1). Historical and artistic significance aside, the pair of Doors formed part of the Iconostasis--a wall of religious paintings forming an integral part of Orthodox Christian churches which separates the sanctuary from the nave--maintaining, as such, an important religious character. (4)

The Doors' complex history of identification and return to Cyprus goes back at least three decades. Originating from the occupied village of Peristeronopigi, the Doors are presumed to have left the island at some point between 1974 and 1980. After their departure, they were firstly identified by the then Honorary Consul of Cyprus in the Netherlands--Tasoula Hadjitofi--from the documents of an exhibition which later went bankrupt taking place at the Dutch city of Wijnburg in the late 1980s. Those documents contained pictures of the Doors indicating that they had been bought by Aydin Dikmen and Michel Van Rijn, (5) two names which are familiar to anyone who is aware of Cypriot antiquities trafficking outside the island. (6) Their involvement in the now infamous Goldberg case is illustrative. (7) A legal action at the time for the return of the Doors was not possible since their location was unknown. (8)

In 1991, Hadjitofi happened to see the Holy Doors of St Anastasios on display at the Roozemond Gallery in The Hague. She got in touch with the Cypriot Department of Antiquities which confirmed the origin of the Doors. (9) Having been informed about the tainted provenance of the Doors, Hadj itofi--operating as a representative of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus--asked the owner of the Gallery to hand the Doors over to the Church. However, the owner replied that the Doors had already been sold. After this encounter, the Doors disappeared from public view. Once again, no legal action was possible since the whereabouts were unknown. (10)

The next stop on the Doors' journey was the Kanazawa College of Art in Japan. The circumstances under which the Doors came into the possession of the College remain until today largely unknown. Reportedly, the Doors were sold in 1995 by an art dealer located in The Hague for the price of 14 million yen. (11) The following year, Michael Van Rijn revealed to Hadjitofi the location of the Doors. Hadjitofi approached the Kanazawa College of Art informing it about the problematic provenance of the Doors and requested that they be returned to their original owner. In response, the College stressed that the Holy Doors of St Anastasios had been purchased with funds from the Japanese public claiming that it had no suspicions of the tainted provenance of the Doors since the transaction took place through a legitimate art dealer based in The Hague. The College in addition requested further proof which would substantiate in more detail the provenance of the Doors. The evidence which had been previously submitted, consisting entirely of handwritten notes with no images, was deemed insufficient. (12)


In reaction, Cyprus explored the possibility of lodging a legal claim before the Japanese courts. Over the last two decades, Japan--which for many years had a reputation for facilitating title laundering of stolen cultural objects--has made important progress in order to curb the illicit trade in antiquities. In 2002 it ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer...

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