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Stolen icon travels a well-worn trail

A Greek monastery joins a long list of victims as religious works become a hot commodity for thieves.

October 22, 2006|Brian Murphy | Associated Press Writer

ATHENS — She first noticed the slivers of glass.

Strange, the nun thought, we always sweep the floors after the last pilgrims and miracle-seekers are ushered out before dusk.

Then it all became terribly clear.

A smashed window. Candles toppled over. And an arch-shaped hole where the Elona Monastery's greatest treasure had been pried from its cradle of pine and resin.

The mother superior ran to the Greek Orthodox priest assigned to the monastery for the busy week around the Aug. 15 feast day of the Virgin Mary, when thousands come to see the 700-year-old icon of the Madonna and Child that some believe has graced their mountainous patch of southern Greece with miraculous powers.

"It's gone," she gasped. "Our icon is gone."

Police arrived within minutes. Nervous local politicos soon joined them. The sunrise was just cresting the Aegean Sea horizon, making the cinnamon-hued limestone cliffs around the monastery blush apple red. A mountaineer's rope hung limp against the rock face. Down it went -- 130 feet -- to a thicket of chestnut trees, holly bramble and shepherd paths.

Somewhere in these woods during the night -- aided by the weak light of a quarter moon -- the thief slipped away with the icon, police say.

"When the icon was gone," said the mother superior, "the monastery became like a cemetery."

Time of the essence

In the dark world of art theft, religious items are some of the hottest commodities -- driven partly by the same insatiable interest in mysteries of faith that catapulted "The Da Vinci Code" to international fame and created a sensation around the recent "Gospel of Judas."

Experts in art theft say the best chance for recovery is before an object enters the international black markets, which are awash in objects from every major faith and culture.

Greece is not an easy place to contain a thief on the run. Its borders are notoriously porous. It would be easy to stash the icon on a boat to Turkey. Or carry it to Bulgaria or Albania along the routes used by drug mules and human traffickers. The actual icon is small -- 16 by 20 inches -- and is fitted behind an ornamental facade of burnished gold and a heavy frame.

Photos and details of the icon were posted on Interpol's stolen-art watch list.

Such crimes have been going on since the tomb raiders and relic traders of antiquity. Yet now there's a borderless buyers' market with deals being made on cellphones and e-mail.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav wars brought a flood of looted Christian works -- including icons, chalices, crosses and gilded iconostases, or altar walls -- into a black market already heavy with objects from places such as Eastern Europe and Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew an unprecedented wave of Muslim and pre-Islamic artifacts and cultural patrimony. Recently, investigators have noticed a surge in stolen works from Latin America and Southeast Asia, such as Buddhist ceremonial figures and pre-Columbian sacramental pieces.

"It's a phenomenon that is now so widespread," said Jennifer Thevenot, a spokeswoman for the Paris-based International Council of Museums, which works with Interpol and other agencies on art theft issues. "It affects all regions and all religions."

Interpol and the U.N. cultural heritage agency UNESCO call stolen art the No. 3 illegal market behind drugs and arms trading.

Interpol statistics offer some guidance. For 2004 -- the most recent data available -- nearly 1,800 thefts were reported from places of worship, led by Italy and Russia. For the same period, there were 334 museum thefts and 291 from dealers or galleries.

By midmorning Aug. 19, forensic teams at the Elona Monastery had found DNA traces. Roadblocks were set up around the nearby regional center of Leonido, about 120 miles southwest of Athens. Helicopters buzzed through valleys and around the 4,000-foot peaks on the Parnonas Range.

"It was a matter of honor for us to find the icon and the culprits," said the head of the Greek national police, Anastasios Dimoschakis, whose teams quickly pieced together a theory on the burglary.

The thief -- or thieves -- most likely entered the monastery with pilgrims and then hid until dark. Only one window to the chapel is without bars. That's because it looks out on a vertical drop of almost certain death. But that was the way both in and out. Footprints and smudges from the rope showed the daring descent along the whitewashed walls.

Inside the chapel, an outer barrier of glass was smashed to reach the small chamber with the icon. The icon was chiseled out of its base with crisp precision.

The icon must have been stashed in a backpack, police guessed. It would be far too risky for a one-handed descent from the cliff.

How legend grew

The precise origins of the icon are lost to time.

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