Albania returns 20 stolen icons to neighboring North Macedonia

Albania has returned 20 icons to neighboring North Macedonia, which were stolen a decade ago

Llazar Semini
Friday 15 December 2023 21:06 GMT

Albania on Friday returned 20 icons to neighboring North Macedonia that were stolen a decade ago, Albania's Culture Ministry said.

The return marked the final stretch on a long, 10-year road with "much inter-institutional and international cooperation,” said Albania's Culture Minister Elva Margariti. It also showed Albania’s commitment to “the fight against trafficking of the cultural inheritance objects,” she said.

A handover ceremony was held at the National Historic Museum in the Albanian capital of Tirana. No further details were provided about the icons.

Later, the cargo arrived at the National Museum in North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, where they were unpacked and briefly presented to the public. They will be kept for up to 45 days in a special chamber to avoid damage from atmospheric pressure changes, after which experts will start their restoration.

North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski and head of the Orthodox Church, Archbishop Stefan joined the ceremony.

In 2013, Albanian authorities in Tirana seized more than 1,000 stolen religious and secular pieces of art dating from the 15th to the mid-20th century and arrested two men suspected of planning to sell them abroad.

The icons, frescoes and other pieces were taken from churches and cultural centers in southeastern Albania and in the neighboring North Macedonia.

North Macedonian Culture Minister Bisera Kostadinovska thanked Albanian authorities.

In 2013, North Macedonian experts recognized the icons when Albanian television stations broadcast Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama inspecting icons seized by police. Skopje officially put in a request for their return in 2018.

In 2022, the two governments signed the agreement for their return during a joint Cabinets’ meeting in Skopje, the first of its kind in the region.

Many icons and other artworks in Albania are believed to have been looted from churches and other places, especially during the anarchy of 1997 in Albania, when many in the country — among some of the continent's poorest people — lost their life savings in failed pyramid schemes.

Over the past two decades, more than 10,000 religious artifacts have been stolen from North Macedonia's churches, including precious icons painted in the stylized Byzantine tradition. Thieves removed sections of altar screens, crosses, lamps and Bibles.

Icons recovered from Albania are the first to be returned so far.

Both Albania and North Macedonia have launched full membership negotiations with the European Union.


Associated Press writer Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed to this report.


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