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Litigators of the lost art.


The return of the Byzantine mosaics has restored venerated religious treasures to their homeland and dealt a blow to the billion-dollar worldwide black market in stolen art and antiquities.

It was a matter of faith. Father Pavlos Maheriotis, draped in black from head to toe, a gold-tipped black staff cradled in the crook of his arm, sat at the end of the long wooden table like an exclamation point.

For six days of the trial, his faith anchored him. The Oxford-educated monk had come to this Indianapolis courtroom as the personal representative of the archbishop of the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and, indirectly, nearly half a million of his Christian countrymen. While two teams of lawyers examined and cross-examined witnesses, shuffled through reams of depositions, and presented their arguments, Father Pavlos sat calmly.

"It is a matter of concentration," he said in slow, thickly accented English. "This is very, very important to us."

On March 29, 1989, the archbishop and the Federal Republic of Cyprus had filed suit against suburban Indianapolis art dealer Peg L. Goldberg to reclaim four extremely rare Byzantine mosaics that had been ripped out of the ceiling of a small village church in Cyprus.

The trial began on Tuesday, May 30, and ended a week later. Judge James E. Noland of the Federal District Court for Southern Indiana conducted a quiet, orderly trial. Little in the courtroom proceedings would indicate the powerful emotions aligned on both sides of the case.

The plaintiffs were fighting to regain the most ancient and venerated religious relics that had ever been stolen from their country. And, not indirectly, they were also fighting to uphold a crucial political position. That village church was in northern Cyprus, which has been occupied by the Turkish Army since 1974. The Greek Cypriots regard this territory and everything within it as rightfully theirs. This combination of religious and national passions was nearing meltdown intensity.

The defendant was fighting for her financial existence. A small-time dealer with some big-time connections, Goldberg had borrowed $1.2 million from an Indianapolis bank to purchase the mosaics. Now, the interest payments and her legal fees were eating her alive. If she lost, she would find herself at the bottom of a financial hole that looked much like a grave.

On a larger scale, the suit promised to be a landmark decision in efforts to stem the international trade in stolen art and antiquities. Experts say this is a billion-dollar black market, second only to the traffic in illegal drugs.

With paintings barely 100 years old selling for tens of millions of dollars and record prices being broken and set nearly every month, it is difficult to estimate the price of four 1,450-year-old mosaics. Goldberg had offered the mosaics to one museum for $20 million.

Moreover, experts believed the decision would set an important precedent. All over the world, from Bolivia, to Greece to Thailand, from Native American tribes and national governments, the cry is being raised: Return our culture!

That demand is primarily directed at American and European museums, those vast repositories of the world's greatest art and artifacts. Museum experts were watching the Indianapolis trial with mixed emotions. Although they feared they might lose some masterpieces from their collections, many of them believe the changing moral climate of the 20th century justifies the demands of the home countries.

For Father Pavlos, there was no doubt. "They are our spiritual treasure, part of our Christian life," he testified.

As far as the international press was concerned, the story was hot, the stuff of cinema. It came complete with bitter religious and ethnic clashes, invading Turkish troops, erstwhile archaeologists with dubious credentials and questionable methods, convicted forgers, secret deals for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Midwestern innocents caught in Middle Eastern intrigue.

But no swashbuckling heroes appeared to snatch the holy relics from the greedy clutches of smugglers. Indiana Jones would have had to wait at the back of the courtroom as the legal chess game proceeded: litigators of the lost art.

Around 525 A.D., in the tiny Cypriot village of Lythrankomi, artisans began the meticulous task of carefully setting thousands of small glass tiles, called tesserae, into the plaster dome above the altar in the church called the Panagia Kanakaria. They created a large mosaic picture of the apostles surrounding the Virgin Mary. And upon Mary's lap sat the boy Jesus.

Perhaps Lythrankomi was too small and too out of the way to attract imperial attention when, 200 years later, the "iconoclast" (image-breaking) Byzantine emperors ordered the wholesale destruction of icons, frescos, and mosaics on the grounds that the veneration of these images violated the Second Commandment against idolatry. In the world, only five large mosaics suites are known to have survived.

The Kanakaria mosaics then withstood another 12 centuries of tumult and turmoil as the island passed through the hands of the Byzantine Empire; Arabs; crusaders; and Venetian, Turkish, and British armies. Situated only 40 miles from the southern coast of Turkey and 60 miles west of the Syrian coast, Cyprus has always been a buoy in the boiling tides of the Mideast. It is still a crucial military staging ground and supply depot for American forces in the Middle East.

Cyprus' history has left it with a volatile population. Eighty percent of the island's approximately 675,000 inhabitants are Greek and Christian. Twenty percent are Turkish and Muslim. After an attempted coup in 1974 by Greek Cypriots seeking political union with Greece, an alarmed Turkey invaded the island and conquered the northern third, including Lythrankomi. That territory is still occupied by the Turkish Army under the auspices of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a government recognized by no country except Turkey.

The Greek Cypriots refuse to deal with this outlaw regime and blame it for allowing these mosaics and other religious art to be desecrated and plundered. They were outraged when, only a few days before the trial was to begin, the TRNC petitioned the court to join in the suit against Goldberg. In other words, the Turkish Cypriots wanted a piece of the action. They wanted the mosaics to be returned to the TRNC.

Judge Noland's first order of business was to dismiss the motion. This decision, rendered in strict legal logic, was emotionally bolstered by the testimony of the trial's first witness, a former caretaker of the Kanakaria church. Speaking through an intepreter, Theodoros Avraam calmly told of Turkish persecutions after the 1974 invasion.

"We were loaded in buses, taken to Turkey, where we were beaten up, imprisoned for 35 days, then returned home," Avraam said. Greek villagers were offered truck transport to the south in 1976. When he left, Avraam said, the church was locked.

Three years later in 1979, reports from foreign tourists reached the Department of Antiquities in Nicosia that the Kanakaria mosaics had been chiseled from the ceiling.

The fate of the mosaics was hidden from the world until 1983, when Walter Hopps, then director of the famous Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and Yanni Petsopolous, a London antiquities dealer, walked into the Munich apartment of a Turk named Aydin Dikmen.

If this story lacks a hero, at least it has one character swaddled in enough sleaze to be considered its villain. Identified 25 years ago as a dealer in stolen archaeological artifacts, Dikmen continues to do business despite investigations by Turkish police and public outcries in the TRNC. In 1983, while negotiating with Dikmen for a stolen fresco, Hopps and Petsopolous saw a mosaic rondel, a round portrait head of a saint, in Dikmen's apartment. He and Hopps eventually identified the mosaic as one of the Kanakaria suite. Petsopolous later engineered a secret deal with a Cypriot millionaire to buy four mosaics from Dikmen and return them to Cyprus. Two turned out to be fakes, as did an elaborate story Petsopolous told Hopps and which Hopps later repeated in a sworn deposition--but such is the nature of this entire case.

In late June 1988, Peg Goldberg flew to Amsterdam to purchase a painting by Modigliani, a deal she never completed because--as she testified--she was unsure of the painting's authenticity. In Amsterdam, she ran into an old friend, another Indianapolis art dealer, named Robert Fitzgerald, or Robert Jones, or Fitzgerald-Jones, or Jones Fitzgerald, as he has been known.

Fitzgerald introduced her to an old friend of his, a dealer named Michel van Rijn. Van Rijn claimed descent from the immortal Rembrandt van Rijn and, on his mother's side, from Rembrandt's equally immortal contemporary, Peter Paul Rubens.

Van Rijn told Goldberg of four early-Christian mosaics that could be had for a relative song in Geneva, Switzerland. Their owner, the former official archaeologist for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, was deathly ill and needed to raise some quick money. They concocted a deal for future resale profits and flew to Geneva to meet Dikmen and see the mosaics. Another friend of van Rijn's appraised the mosaics: they were worth as much as $5 million. The price to Goldberg, a mere $1,080,000.

Goldberg said she "fell in love" with the mosaics as soon as she saw them. Apparently her enthusiasm was infectious enough and "phonogenic" enough that she could convince an Indianapolis banker, Otto N. "Nick" Frenzel III, chairman and chief executive of one of the state's largest banks, to lend her $1.2 million to make the purchase. A few days later, Goldberg went to a Swiss bank and picked up two bags filled with $100 bills. She pocketed $120,000 and gave the rest of Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald paid Dikmen $350,000 for the four mosaic rondels. At the trial, he testified that he did not tell Goldberg the actual purchase price because it was "none of her business." It was plenty of business for Fitzgerald and for van Rijn, who received half of the surplus.

Goldberg displayed little emotion as she sat in the courtroom listening to Fitzgerald's story. On the witness stand, she was self-assured, almost brassy. As she said then and later, her conscience was clear that she had always acted in good faith, even if others had not.

The notion of good faith became the single most important legal issue in the trial. Goldberg's attorneys hoped to apply the lex situs rule, which allows the law of the place where an action occurs to govern its legal disposition elsewhere. The law of Switzerland, they argued, should apply because that is where she bought the mosaics. Swiss law allows a thief (in this case Dikmen) to pass good title to a buyer who makes a "good faith" effort to determine the history of the goods being purchased.

The plaintiffs, represented by a Washington, D.C., lawyer, Thomas Kline, first argued that Swiss law did not apply, then went on to argue that even if it did, Goldberg's effort had been insufficient to warrant a good faith claim. The most damning evidence: Goldberg's failure to make any attempt to contact the people most directly concerned, the Cypriots.

In Kline's cross-examination, he accused her of making only a flimsy effort to determine if the mosaics were reported stolen. In early July, before consummating the purchase, Goldberg said she contacted the International Foundation for Art Research, Interpol, and UNESCO in search of any taint on the mosaics. None was found.

Maybe so, Kline said, but a good faith buyer would have done more: Goldberg should have gone to the source, to Cyprus.

Goldberg's lawyers turned the good faith argument against Cyprus. Throughout the trial, the Indianapolis attorney Joe C. Emerson hammered away at this theme: the Greek Cypriots had made no effort to protect the religious artifacts left in the north.

By refusing to discuss this question (or any other) with Turkish Cypriot authorities, they had let politics dictate their actions. Father Pavlos' faith was irrelevant, Emerson argued, because Cyprus failed to make a good faith effort to tell the international community of the theft. Emerson even suggested that the Kanakaria church had been abandoned, left as fair game for scavengers.

This elicited an uncharacteristic response from Father Pavlos, who nearly shouted his answer: "Does the archbishop of Cyprus consider the church of the Panagia Kanakaria in Lythrankomi to be abandoned? Of course not!"

The church of the Panagia Kanakaria is a small building, perhaps 40 feet from the east apse to the main west entrance. The main dome is only 25 feet high. It sits at the edge of a rough excuse for a village, isolated among fields of scrub thistle and sunbaked rock. It looks like a fossil, sunbleached and fragile. The mortar in its walls crumbles at the touch.

All the Christian villagers have fled south, so no one uses the church any more. Its doors are padlocked, but the village headman has the key. He will wait patiently while you wander through the small structure. There isn't much to see: a few faded fragments of old frescos, the skeletal frame of the iconostasis that once held dozens of holy icons, and a floor.

The half-dome in the apse that once held the mosaics is barely 15 feet across. You can see immediately the gaping holes where the mosaics were ripped out of the plaster. A small section of the mosaic pattern was left intact at the edge of the dome, but that's it.

On August 3, Judge James E. Noland announced his decision, all 86 pages of it. Simply put: The mosaics belonged to Cyprus. After two months of holding its breath, the art world and the international press exhaled all over the front page, in Indianapolis; New York; Washington, D.C.; London--and in Cyprus.

In Nicosia, a spontaneous celebration broke out at what normally is a solemn occasion--the observance of the death of the first president of independent Cyprus. The news was too good to wait. President George Vassiliou delivered it to a cheering crowd of 10,000. "I just want to make a happy announcement," he said. "The Indianapolis court has decided in favor of Cyprus!" Enthusiastic applause erupted.

In Washington, Michael E. Sherifis, Cyprus' newly named ambassador, learned of the decision only minutes before he was to present his credentials to President George Bush. "I am deeply grateful to the United States' justice system," he said emotionally. He explained that the ruling sent a strong message that "our art is not to be peddled like some common thing. These are precious items of worship."

The fallout from the historic decision might spread far beyond the small church of the Panagia Kanakaria where the saga began so many years ago. The international black-market trade in stolen art--estimated to carry an annual price tag of $1 billion--may be curbed. However, as long as the payoffs are so lucrative, such heists surely will continue.

In the case of the mosaics, the Cypriots weren't the only "winners." Robert Fitzgerald made out like a bandit, and van Rijn is still at it, reportedly dealing with the Cypriot government for the sale of two or three additional fragments of the Kanakaria mosaics. But even he has been affected by the Indianapolis decision: he has hired bodyguards to protect him from Dikmen, who has threatened his life.

PHOTO : Art dealer Goldberg testified she believed that the church housing the mosaics had been

PHOTO : reduced to rubble by the 1974 invasion. This picture, taken by the author in August 1989,

PHOTO : proves the church is intact: holes remain where the mosaic of Christ (left) was plundered.

PHOTO : The mosaics--composed of hundreds of jewel-like bits of glass, marble, and stone--have a

PHOTO : market value estimated at $20 million.

PHOTO : The landmark decision brought cheers around the world. Author Steve Mannheimer delivered

PHOTO : the news to the Cypriot president.

PHOTO : Likenesses of an archangel (above) and Matthew and James (top left and right) are among

PHOTO : few such works to survive an eighth-century edict to destroy sacred images.

PHOTO : The mosaics, desecrated when thieves laid hands on them, are blessed by the Reverend

PHOTO : Father James Rousakis, the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis,

PHOTO : as they lie in a vault awaiting return to Cyprus.

PHOTO : Holey, holey, holey is the ceiling in the village church in northern Cyprus from which

PHOTO : thieves chiseled the mosaics after Turkish troops invaded the island in 1974.

PHOTO : Attorneys from law firms in Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis collaborated as counsel for

PHOTO : the Cypriots and planned the strategy that returned the mosaics to their homeland. Among

PHOTO : the witnesses to testify for the Republic of Cyprus were art experts, curators,

PHOTO : international law professors, and members of the church hierarchy.

PHOTO : Father Pavlos Maheriotis represented the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus at the trial.

PHOTO : The Getty Museum curator in California blew the whistle on Goldberg when she offered the

PHOTO : mosaics for $20 million. The museum notified the Greek church.

PHOTO : The author, among the few to visit the now-locked church of Panagia Kanakaria, snapped

PHOTO : these photos of its interior. The Cypriot government had warned art dealers that it was

PHOTO : searching for the artifacts, but nine years passed before they surfaced.

PHOTO : Peg Goldberg's attorney argued that she acted in good faith. The counsel for the Cypriots

PHOTO : responded that Goldberg's only credentials of good faith were "an empty head and a plane

PHOTO : ticket to Switzerland."
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Title Annotation:court orders return of Byzantine mosaics to their homeland
Author:Mannheimer, Steve
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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