Looted St Mark mosaic returns home to Cyprus

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand poses with the missing mosaic of St Mark in The Hague on November 17, 2018, before handing it back to Cypriot authorities (AFP Photo/Jan HENNOP) (AFP)

Nicosia (AFP) - Cyprus has welcomed home a rare sixth-century Christian mosaic from the Byzantine period four decades after it was looted from a church in the island's Turkish-held north, Cypriot authorities said Tuesday.

"The mosaic of Apostle Mark… has been repatriated to Cyprus from the Netherlands," Cyprus's antiquities department said in a statement.

"This is very important for Cyprus because we have so few mosaics from this period and indeed the world has very few examples of this Byzantine art form," Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou, the antiquities department head, told AFP.

The mosaic was stolen from the church of Panayia Kanakaria in northern Cyprus following the Turkish invasion in 1974. It was one of several icons looted from the church during this time.

"The walled mosaics of Panayia Kanakaria, dating back to the sixth century AD, are highly important works of art and among the few remaining early Christian mosaics in the world," the antiquities department said.

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand tracked down the mosaic in Monaco after a nearly two-year chase across Europe.

It was handed over to the antiquities department and the Church of Cyprus during a private ceremony Sunday in The Hague. It is to go on display to the public at the Byzantium Museum in the capital Nicosia.

The return "shows we can successfully repatriate stolen treasures... There are other missing pieces we will seek to repatriate when information on their whereabouts comes to light," said Solomidou-Ieronymidou.

Dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the art world" because of his exploits to recover stolen works, Brand won world fame in 2015 after finding two massive bronze statues made by Nazi sculptor Joseph Thorak that are known as "Hitler's Horses".

He told AFP the Cypriot mosaic depicting the Byzantine saint had been "in the possession of a British family, who bought the mosaic in good faith more than four decades ago".

"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 Cyprus in exchange for a small fee to cover restoration and storage costs, Brand said, adding that the relic was worth five to 10 million euros ($5.7 to $11.4 million).

The mosaic, believed to have been made around 550 AD, was one of many that adorned the walls of Panayia Kanakaria church, northwest of the capital.

According to the antiquities department, it was "violently detached and stolen from the church, between 1977-79 by the Turkish looter and art dealer Aydin Dikmen" along with other mosaics.

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.