A successful operation by Albanian police is the first case of finding Macedonian icons believed to have been stolen by organised crime networks.
By Marina Stojanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 28/01/14
Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama views stolen icons that were seized by Albanian police. [AFP]
Albanian police in co-operation with Interpol discovered a treasure trove of stolen art, among which were 20 medieval icons and other historical artefacts, marking a significant victory in the fight against organised crime.
Police said they arrested two people and found 1,077 items, among which were 299 icons, 522 bronze paintings, and 322 other artefacts stolen primarily in Macedonia, but also in Albania.
Officials characterised the police action as the greatest ever in protecting Balkan cultural heritage.
"It was an excellent operation that prevented further trafficking and helped to restore the artefacts back home," Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri told SETimes.
Macedonian police said this is the first case in which stolen icons from Macedonia were found, and they have initiated a procedure to return the items, having placed photos and information on the Interpol website.
"Immediately upon learning that the icons are among the items found in Tirana, we formed a commission with representatives from the police, culture ministry and experts that worked on identifying the icons," Marija Jakovlevska, of the Macedonia interior ministry, told SETimes.
Jakovlevska said Macedonian police are redoubling efforts to co-operate with regional police and Interpol to continue finding the thousands of stolen icons and other historical artefacts.
The icons were identified thanks to being registered and to the existence of documentation about them, including pictures, descriptions and histories, said Bishop Timotej, spokesperson for the Macedonian Orthodox Church.
"More than 300 icons were stolen solely from the Debar-Kicevo diocese in the last few years. These icons are part of Macedonia's cultural heritage and are priceless. Some are several centuries old, made by the best craftsmen," he told SETimes.
The thefts were well-planned and are carried out by organised groups that have all available information on the icons, Vladimir Pivovarov, criminalistics professor at FON University in Skopje, said.
"The channels to sell the icons on the black market are also well developed, and for this reason stolen icons are rarely found," Pivovarov told SETimes.
Serbian police said it is also difficult to find the locations where thieves store the stolen items, and the discovery of the icons is a rare but positive event.
"It is an example of good police co-operation. Of course, Serbian police are always ready to help colleagues in the region and exchange all available information [as needed]," Milorad Veljovic, Serbia police director, told SETimes.
Veljovic said co-operation is necessary to put an end to the growing black market for stolen religious art and cultural artefacts.
About 5,000 medieval icons, church manuscripts and relics have been stolen in Serbia and are scattered around the world, police said.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country's national gallery is missing 40 icons and three Islamic manuscripts, said the gallery's director Strajo Krsmanovic.
"The problem is that in BiH there is no single registry for artwork or a specialised institution to work on combating illegal trade in art, antiquities and archaeological findings," Krsmanovic told SETimes.
In the last five years, the directorate for co-ordination of police agencies said it received only 14 requests to organise searches for stolen items.
In Croatia, there are about 300 thefts of works of art and culture annually, and "about 1,300 different items of great artistic and cultural significance have been stolen since 2005," Jelena Bikic, a spokesperson for the Croatia police, told SETimes.
Bikic said the police increasingly act preventively by co-operating with Interpol and Europol, but also regionally via police initiatives and through bilateral agreements against organised crime.
In addition to increased police co-operation, Croatia and Serbia formed a joint commission for the return of stolen cultural goods.
Correspondents Bojana Milovanovic in Belgrade, Erl Murati in Tirana, Ana Lovakovic in Sarajevo and Kruno Kartus in Zagreb contributed to this report.
What can Balkan countries do to prevent theft of icons and other cultural heritage items? Share your opinion in the comments section.