UK returns stolen icon to Greece

Athens, Greece - A 14th Century Byzantine icon, valued at £1m (1.2m euros) and stolen from a Greek monastery 30 years ago, has been returned to Athens from Britain.

The painting, which depicts Jesus Christ being lowered from the cross, was cut into six pieces to be smuggled out of Greece.

A British court had ordered its return, dismissing an appeal by the owner.

Greek officials said it showed their determination to track down illegally exported artefacts and claim them back.

Three black-clad nuns genuflected and kissed the icon after it was unveiled by Greece's Culture Minister Michalis Liapis.

The large painting was commissioned 700 years ago for the St John the Baptist monastery in Serres, northern Greece, and had hung there until its theft in 1978.

Increased co-operation

The icon was recovered by British police art experts after it was offered for sale in 2002 by London-based Greeks.

They failed to provide proof of ownership and so the High Court in London ordered its return to Athens.

"It holds the prayers of seven-and-a-half centuries. That is how important it is," said Victoria Solomonides, Greece's cultural attache in London, who masterminded its return.

"The message is very loud and very clear. We will not stop until we get what belongs to the Greek state and restore it," she added.

Britain's ambassador to Greece, Simon Gass, interpreted the icon's return as a sign of increased international co-operation in the area of art crime.

"Unfortunately too many wonderful works of art have been stolen, including from churches, in Greece over the years and it is just tremendous to see the collaboration between the British and the Greek systems which has allowed this work of art to be returned to Greece," he said.

But Mr Gass said this did not create a precedent for the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, the treasures held by the British Museum, which are top of Greece's wanted list.

After its brief appearance, the icon was taken away by restorers, who will spend several months attempting to repair the damage done by the thieves.

Eventually the icon will be returned to the sisterhood in Serres.