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17788Church art theft impoverishing Albanian culture

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Apr 22, 2013
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      http://www.dw.de/church-art-theft-impoverishing-albanian-culture/a-16760083

      Church art theft impoverishing Albanian culture

      22/4/13

      Since the end of communism in Albania, an increasing number of priceless
      works of art have been stolen from Orthodox churches. Now, a theft that
      left historic frescoes destroyed has finally caused an uproar.

      With knives and axes, art thieves destroyed historic frescoes in a small
      church in Elbasan in central Albania in January. In trying to remove the
      wall painting, they ended up shredding it. In February, robbers
      similarly descended on a church in southern Himara. The churches in both
      cases were Orthodox, the richly decorated interiors of which are
      particularly attractive to art thieves.

      Many of the destroyed works were by Onufri, a famous icon painter of the
      16th century anhd the best-known medieval artist in Albania. The thefts
      sparked broad outrage in the media, especially among archaeologists.

      But the problem is not new: “For 20 years, icons and other items of
      historical value have continuously been stolen from Orthodox church
      interiors in southern Albania. In 1990 there were over 12,000
      inventoried icons in the country. Today no one knows how many are left,”
      lamented Albanian archeology professor and restorer Gjergj Frasheri. In
      his opinion, the state does too little for the protection of cultural
      heritage – not one of the art thieves has been caught and brought to
      justice.

      Gentian Stratoberdha, architect and director of the cultural heritage
      department of the Orthodox Church of Albania, said that in recent years,
      even prominent private collectors have organized exhibitions in Albania
      in which cultural goods from churches were displayed. However, the
      origin of these works remains mostly unclear. “Even if we want to deny
      its existence, there’s a secret black market – dealers and customers who
      are looking for such things.”

      Against cultural vandalism

      Many of the icons sold are brought from the low-elevation Myzeqe plains
      of central Albania, where Orthodox churches were once especially richly
      decorated with medieval frescoes. “There, at least 13 churches have been
      burglarized. There are longer have any real church facilities,”
      Stratoberdha said. Even the iconostasis – a three-door icon wall between
      church and chancel – has been stolen from these Orthodox churches.

      Until now, there has hardly been a public reaction to such news. But
      that changed after the damage to the Onufri frescoes. In several
      protests, the “Forum for the Protection of Cultural Heritage” denounced
      the indifference of the state, and even called for the resignation of
      the culture minister.

      The protests pushed the Ministry of Culture into action, and it will now
      monitor 51 selected churches with cameras. They should be installed by
      the end of April. But Stratoberdha said that these, too, could be
      damaged or stolen – and that power cuts must be taken into account.

      In addition, a camera system would not work “in churches that are
      located in remote areas that can be reached by the police only after two
      hours,” he said. “The Albanian government should protect these cultural
      monuments with armed security forces.”

      ‘Losing our identity’

      Paradoxically, works of religious art were safer during the communist
      dictatorship in Albania than today – even though the exercise of
      religion was forbidden in the world’s first atheist state, and churches
      were even destroyed.

      The state considered works of art as national treasures to be protected.
      Today, hardly anyone cares about cultural values and art, painter and
      restorer Hasan Nallbani said: “When I was still teaching at the
      university, visits to these churches with the students were part of the
      curriculum. But today, many Albanian students have only heard of the
      painter Onufri for the first time through this robbery.”

      Stratoberdha criticized the indifference of large parts of society
      toward art, and the many cases of art theft. The destruction of Orthodox
      Christian cultural heritage is a big loss not only for members of this
      religion – but for all citizens in multi-confessional Albania,
      Stratoberdha asserted.

      “We are losing our identity. Maybe some citizens are indifferent because
      they feel very far from the Orthodox cultural heritage because of their
      own denomination or religion,” he said.

      But people shouldn’t just see something from the perspective of their
      own religion, he said, rather “as a national cultural heritage of the
      Albanian people.” If this were to cease to exist, the testament to a
      1,500-year history would disappear along with it.