NEWS

Court upholds Italian art dealer's conviction over rare church murals

YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

TAGS: Culture, Crime, Justice

An Athens appeals court has upheld an 11-year sentence against a Sicilian art and antiquities dealer convicted over the theft four decades ago of four rare murals from an Early Christian rural church in Steni on Evia.

Gianfranco Becchina, who is now 80 years old, was not present at Friday’s hearing in Athens, but his lawyer told the court that her client, being an expert in antiquities, was unaware of the murals’ importance and had no role in their theft. Judges rejected the appeal, upholding a conviction against Becchina on charges of receiving stolen goods.

The case dates to 1978, when a known thief from Pyrgos in the northwestern Peloponnese broke into the Church of Palaiopanaghias and chiseled off four 16th century paintings of the saints Ermolaos, Nikitas, Makarios of Egypt and Nestor, causing extensive damage to the interior of the listed monument. The man was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 over a string of unrelated thefts, but the four murals remained missing for years until they were discovered in 2001 during an investigation into a gallery in Basel, Switzerland, run by Becchina and his wife, Ursula Juraschek.

There, Swiss authorities discovered a trove of stolen Italian antiquities, as well as the four Greek paintings that are believed to belong to the so-called School of Thebes movement.

The paintings were repatriated to Greece in 2010 and are now on display the Byzantine Museum in Athens. Their total value has been estimated in the range of 160,000 euros.

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