Church art theft impoverishing Albanian culture

| April 22, 2013

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."

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Category: Church Security

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