The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage

  • By Tasoula Hadjitofi
  • Pegasus Books
  • 400 pp.

A fascinating account of a Greek Cypriot woman's journey to return pillaged, priceless objects.

Tasoula Hadjitofi is a singularly focused woman. She is driven to find and return the precious treasures stolen from her native Cyprus when the Turkish army invaded the island in 1974.

The first 14 years of her life were idyllic, growing up alongside her two sisters and brother in the city of Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus. In The Icon Hunter, she so richly describes the details of Orthodox religious rituals, Greek Cypriot foods, and local customs that it is easy to understand why the author says she cherishes these memories of Cyprus “as if they were priceless personal antiquities.”

But in 1974, the horrific bombing campaign of the Turkish air force and subsequent invasion force the author and her family to flee for their lives to Limassol on the southern coast.

With more than 200,000 Greek Cypriots displaced and over 1,000 missing and feared dead, Turkey swallows up just over a third of the island. Churches and archaeological sites are looted and desecrated with abandon; where 500 churches had once stood, a mere five remain intact afterward.

Centuries’ worth of sacred artifacts are stolen from monasteries, churches, castles, and museums. Invaluable antiquities — several dozen major frescoes, 20,000 icons, thousands of chalices, bibles, coins, urns, crosses, wooden carvings, mosaics, and statues are seized by traffickers, broken up, smuggled out, and sold to investors across the world.

Greedy buyers fuel the demand while shady, secretive art dealers reap multimillion-dollar profits, all at the expense of Greek Cypriots’ cultural identity and heritage. The stolen treasures often change hands multiple times before disappearing without a trace.

At age 17, the refugee Hadjitofi left her homeland for the Netherlands. As an adult living in the Hague, she establishes a successful company, becomes honorary consul of Cyprus in the Netherlands, eventually marries Dr. Michael Hadjitofi, and embarks on a 20-year venture to track down and expose the thieves who wantonly pillaged Cyprus of its historic artifacts and repatriate her cultural heritage.

The Icon Hunter is filled with a rich cast of characters — rogue antique merchants, dodgy financiers, greedy purchasers, a private detective, an archbishop, a notorious Turkish smuggler, and others, like the intriguing Dutch art dealer Michel van Rijn, “Who does nothing without an ulterior motive.” He’s an “extrovert, falsely presenting himself as a descendant of the Dutch master painter Rembrandt van Rijn” and who “lives everywhere and nowhere, because his questionable business practices leave a trail of angry people in the wake of his deceit.”

Yet this man offers his help in exchange for immunity from prosecution and enough money to start a new life in Australia. Can Hadjitofi trust the man she compares with “a devil”?

Given the dizzying list of extraordinary players in the unfolding drama — many with Greek, Dutch, Armenian, or Japanese names — a Cast of Characters would have been extremely helpful. (Useful tip: Write one yourself or there’s a danger of losing the plot.) Nor is there an index, which would have come in handy. And readers should keep a map of Cyprus close by.

It’s not long before our heroine is deeply engaged in legal pursuit of stolen antiquities found in Japan and the United States. Tracking stolen artifacts’ whereabouts is hard enough, but there are other problems to overcome.

Under Dutch law, there is a 20-year statute of limitations, so time is of the essence. Establishing provenance is another major issue — the burden of proof of ownership lay with the church for sacred artifacts and the government of Cyprus for historical works. But the Greek Orthodox Church had not kept documentary records or photographs. Why would they? No one had ever dreamt that their daily ritual objects would be stolen.

And to complicate matters even more, art traffickers can turn an illicit item into a perfectly legally owned one since Dutch law decrees that if a stolen good has changed hands several times (in one case, it changed 36 times), then a sale can be deemed totally legitimate. As Hadjitofi says, “Being on the side of right does not guarantee justice.”

The pièce de résistance of Hadjitofi’s quest for justice on behalf of her wronged people is her part in “the Munich Case,” one of the most spectacular sting operations since the end of the Second World War. In 1997, she orchestrated the raid of the apartment of the above-mentioned Turkish smuggler, whom the Cypriot authorities believed to be the mastermind behind the trafficking of their treasures.

Not bad for a woman who says of herself, “I’m just a girl from Famagusta” and “I’m not James Bond.” Perhaps not — but she could dress to kill. She’s a woman straight out of Vogue — we are told of her pink Escada jacket, black Valentino suit, dresses by Dutch designer Gérard Brussé and Louis Féraud, and Chanel No. 5.

The Icon Hunter offers penetrating insights into the seedy, avaricious world of antique traffickers. If you knew nothing of the plunder of Cyprus and the laws that hinder restitution, then this is a book for you.

But we have not heard the last of “Cultural Crime Watcher” Tasoula Hadjitofi. She has now launched her own NGO, “Walk of Truth,” to raise the public’s awareness about the need to protect their cultural heritage from violence.  

A final word of appreciation must go to the present-day saint in this story. The man rightly described by his wife as offering “calm, sturdy, dependable support” — Hadjitofi’s long-suffering husband, Michael. I trust Tasoula would agree she could never have achieved such success without him by her side.

Dina Gold is a former London-based BBC reporter and producer. She now lives in Washington, DC, and is the author of Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin, published by Ankerwycke. Find her on Twitter at @dina_gold or on her website at www.stolenlegacy.com.

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