Looted gifts are tip of iceberg

Andrew Gumbel
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:26

Precious Albanian artefacts that have found their way into the hands of the Queen and some of Britain's top politicians may represent just the tip of the iceberg of the country's stolen heritage.

Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office have been looking back over their records of President Sali Berisha's visit to Britain in 1994, when relics from the Ottoman Empire, believed to have been lifted illegally from national museums in Albania, were showered upon his hosts.

While an inlaid silver box for the Queen, a flintlock pistol for John Major and a jewelled dagger for Douglas Hogg may be the most striking items to have found their way out of Albania under suspicious circumstances, they are not the only ones.

Wanton looting of Albania's national heritage has gone on unchecked ever since the country emerged from a Communist dictatorship six years ago. Hundreds of precious items, particularly icons, national costumes and priceless Roman-era sculptures, have vanished from museums and are believed to have sunk into a giant black market, which still thrives.

Museums in Apolonia and Butrint, in the south of the country, once considered among the most prestigious in Albania, are now virtually empty. A famous weapons museum in the southern town of Gjirokaster has lost every weapon it ever had. A history museum in Berat has been converted into a private video and bingo parlour. The whereabouts of its former contents are unknown. Even works of art from the post-war Hoxha era of Socialist Realism have found their way on to the black market and into the hands of collectors in Japan and the US.

Much of the looting took place in the political turmoil that shook the country in 1990-91 as the Communist system collapsed and the country struggled to prepare its first democratic elections. But according to Neritan Ceka, former director of the National Archeological Museum, and a leader of one of Albania's opposition parties, the government must accept blame for failing to take any action to protect the national heritage.

"They have spent millions on the police but nothing on a special force to look after museums and artworks," Mr Ceka said. "They have set aside no funds to recover objects stolen in the initial frenzy."

According to Albanians who have taken part in the traffic, a large number of artworks passed illegally into the hands of foreign diplomats from one country in particular who were posted to the country in 1991-92, when everyone was anxious to have foreign aid and private investment pushed in their direction.

Still more was taken out of the country and sold. Police in Greece recently recovered four Roman-era marble heads from the archeological museum in Butrint, which is a couple of miles from the Greek border in southern Albania. Other works have been recovered in Munich.

The traffic has been so intense, according to Mr Ceka and other sources, that the market has been contaminated with fakes from Italy and Greece. According to one report a gang importing fake icons had to give up their enterprise because the black market was flooded with genuine articles.

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