Archaeology Odyssey 1:3, Summer 1998

Plundering the Sacred

German police recover thousands of artworks looted from Cyprus’s churches

By Gabrielle DeFord

One of last year’s most important archaeological discoveries occurred not in the field but in some apartments in Germany. And it was not made by archaeologists but by police after an eight-month sting operation.

Last fall, Munich police raided three apartments during a crackdown on an antiquities smuggling ring. Hidden in the floors and walls of the apartments were dozens of boxes and suitcases stuffed with more than 4,000 ancient artifacts from around the world: East African ceramics, Mayan crafts, Roman coins, Hellenistic pottery and a Coptic prayer shawl from Egypt. But the bulk of the illegal hoard was from Cyprus’s Christian churches and monasteries; the police found more than 140 icons, fragments of Byzantine frescoes depicting Jesus’ disciples, silver crosses, Bibles and prayer books, and exquisitely carved wooden church doors.

On the open market, appraisers say, the icon collection would bring $3 million and the fresco fragments several million dollars apiece; the entire collection may well have a market value as high as $40 million. German authorities removed these valuable objects to the Bayerischer Landesmuseum in Munich.

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