The Byzantine Case of the Mosaics of Lythrankomi

Times Art Writer

A trial opening today in Indianapolis will decide who owns four Byzantine mosaic fragments--a church in Cyprus that housed them from the 6th Century until about a decade ago or an American art dealer who bought them last July for $1.2 million.

The widely publicized case may have far-reaching effects on American trade in foreign antiquities, according to some experts in art law.

"It lands smack-dab in the middle of the way the art market works," said Linda Pinkerton, legal counsel to the J. Paul Getty Trust, who will be attending the trial.

"Lawyers for American collectors, both institutional and private, will be watching this for its implication," Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, told the Associated Press.

"American collections do have many antiquities whose origins are unclear. It's an important case. The stakes are high and the implications could be very broad."

At issue are mosaic panels (each about 2 feet square) depicting Jesus as a youth, the Apostles Mark and James, and an archangel. They are part of a ceiling decoration on the 5th-Century Church of the Panagia Kanakaria in the northern Cyprus village of Lythrankomi. The mosaics were cut out of the ceiling--probably as part of an Islamic attempt to do away with Christian art--sometime after 1974, when Turkish forces invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern part of the island.

Greek Cypriots, who had been forced from the area, learned of the vandalism in 1979 and publicized the loss of the mosaics but never regained them. In the meantime, the mosaics came into the possession of Aydin Dikmen, a Turkish art dealer now living in Munich and reported to be terminally ill.

Dikmen, who apparently represented himself as an official archeologist and obtained an export license that is now being questioned, sold the mosaics to Peg L. Goldberg, a dealer in Carmel, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis. Court documents indicate she bought the artworks in Switzerland for $1.2 million and shipped them to the United States.

The story might have ended there if Goldberg had kept the mosaics for herself or made a quiet, private deal. Instead she enlisted the help of Geza von Habsburg, a Geneva-based art auctioneer, and New York dealer Barbara Divver to try to sell the four fragments for a total of $20 million. According to court documents, the two agents separately (in October and January) offered the mosaics to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Marion True, Getty curator of antiquities, told the agents that the museum does not collect Byzantine art and furthermore that the mosaics were likely stolen. True, who is traveling in Europe and has filed a deposition on the case, notified Cypriot authorities that the missing artworks had resurfaced in an American dealer's hands and had been offered to the Getty.

Now the Church of Cyprus is suing Goldberg for return of the mosaics. The Republic of Cyprus has joined the civil suit because the mosaics and the church building are designated as "nationally protected antiquities and ancient monuments" and therefore are covered by Cyprus' antiquities law of 1935, court documents say. A temporary restraining order prohibiting the sale of the mosaics went into effect on March 29.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an occupation state that is recognized by no country other than Turkey, entered the fray on Wednesday when it filed a request to intervene in the lawsuit and claimed it is the rightful owner of the mosaics.

The defense has not filed a brief in court, but Goldberg's lawyers are expected to argue that she is a good faith purchaser who has legal title to the mosaics and that all export papers are in order.

One of the most important questions in the case is whether Swiss or American law should apply, according to Los Angeles attorney Stephen K. Urice, a specialist in art law.

Under U.S. law, a bona fide purchaser receives what is called a "voidable title" to a purchase. That is, the title can be revoked if the merchandise is found to be stolen or the seller did not have the right to dispose of it. Under Swiss law, however, a bona fide purchaser gets "good title." This means that if the seller turns out to be a thief, the injured party must pursue the thief and not the presumably innocent buyer.

This issue alone could have an enormous impact on international art sales, said Urice, who plans to teach a course in art law with Pinkerton this fall at UCLA. If imported stolen goods aren't treated as stolen goods, American collectors and dealers might be encouraged to make all questionable purchases in countries that have relatively lenient laws.

Another significant issue is "due diligence"--a concept that deals with how far a buyer must go to guard against buying stolen wares. The judge will want to know if Goldberg "asked enough questions and if she asked them in the right places," Urice said.

Court documents indicate that Goldberg questioned UNESCO, the International Foundation for Art Research (which keeps records of art thefts) and customs offices in the United States, Switzerland, West Germany, Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

She did not, however, contact the two authorities that would have told her the mosaics had been stolen: the recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus and the Kanakaria church, the last known--and well documented--owner of the mosaics.

Goldberg is likely to be closely questioned on that, Urice said, but so will the plaintiffs, who must prove that they were duly diligent in notifying proper authorities of the loss and trying to get the mosaics back. The fact that military occupation kept them away from the church may mitigate any lapse by the Cypriots, however.

The case will be heard in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Indiana by Judge James E. Noland. It appears to be a complicated affair, but some attorneys say that it is an unusually clear and well documented case in the typically murky field of antiquities and national patrimony.

"There's a saying among lawyers that goes, 'Bad facts make bad law,' " Pinkerton said.

But here--in the case of a famous artwork that has a paper trail--the facts are "so strong," Pinkerton said, that any decision could go a long way to define the responsibilities of buyers and to determine where and how sales of antiquities will be carried out in the future.

For now, the mosaics are in an Indianapolis bank vault.

Walter Hopps, former director of the Menil Collection in Houston, who last year solved a similar problem through a loan agreement with Cyprus, said the lawsuit will become a test case.

"If the courts uphold the legality of the entry, if there's even a window of time where it looks like it might stand, then the possibility exists that millions and millions of dollars worth of plundered antiquities will pour into the United States," he told the Associated Press. "It will be a horrible precedent."

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