In latest twist to pillaging of antiquities, thieves target remote churches in Greece for rare Byzantine icons and objects

In the last few years, Greek and foreign collectors have shown a great interest in Byzantine art and objects, a trend which has spurred antiquities thieves to pillage remote monasteries and churches throughout the country. Organized antiquities smuggling has zeroed in recently on Byzantine icons. Police have noticed a rise in the number of religious icons and objects stolen from places of worship. According to the police’s antiquities theft division, during 2004 and 2005, smugglers stole 85 Byzantine treasures, whose value is estimated to be in the tens of millions of euros. «Byzantine relics are considered by the big foreign and Greek collectors to be art objects,» Gligoris said, describing how organized gangs steal the objects then sell them to collectors for an enormous price. «One Byzantine icon from the 16th century, for example, which was stolen from a monastery in Halkidiki, was sold for 1.5 million euros,» he said. The worth of the stolen artifact depends on its age, size and creator. Those who are familiar with the activity of this ring say its leaders are pragmatic. Often, they are also scholars who know every detail of Byzantine art history very well. «From the Monastery of the Panaghia in Halkidiki, unidentified people stole an icon which had been created in the 15th century and identical to the one at the Panaghia of Soumela,» Gligoris said. «The person who tracked it down knew its value.» The police’s antiquities theft unit has recorded a rise in looting from churches and monasteries in Karditsa, Trikala, Halkidiki, Ioannina, Volos and Crete.

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