The priceless religious art pieces were stolen in 2005 from the Monastery of the Dormition of the Visokos Virgin, which is located near the village of Kalouta in the Zagori municipality of Epirus. They were returned by the UK last month, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports announced on Tuesday, reported the Greek City Times.
According to the ministry’s announcement, the icons were returned through a collaborative effort by Greek and British officials, as well as some help from Athens’ embassy in London.
A 19th-century icon showing the Baptism of Christ was among the 12 pieces stolen from the northwestern Greek monastery.
“The icon of the Baptism was located in June 2017, by an archaeologist working for the Directorate for the Verification and Protection of Cultural Goods, on sale in a London gallery. Following the immediate mobilization and close cooperation of the services responsible, with the assistance of the embassy of Greece in London, the icon was withdrawn from the list of works for sale,” the culture ministry said.
In response, the London Metropolitan Police ordered the gallery to retain the icon until it could complete its investigation into the matter, which verified that the artwork was the same one that had been stolen from the monastery in Epirus.
The religious art piece was identified when a view of it from the back, shown on the gallery’s website, revealed it was “part of a church templon or screen, which had been used for two other icons stolen from the same church,” the City Times reported. As for the two remaining icons connected to the screen, one was found in 2011 in a different London gallery, while the other was found in Greece.
Organized criminal enterprises have previously targeted religious relics in the last 25 years, said the culture ministry. An additional two icons from a different monastery in the region were found being sold by a German auction house this year, and their return is still pending, the ministry concluded.