Rescue and Restoration
In 1983, photographs of two Byzantine frescoes—dismantled into 38 pieces and purportedly of Turkish origin—came to the attention of Dominique de Menil, president of the Menil Foundation. The exceptional quality of the works became apparent to Mrs. de Menil and arrangements were made to see the frescoes in Munich, Germany. Dominque de Menil and her colleagues, Walter Hopps, Bertrand Davezac, and Elsian Cozens, traveled to a dark, small apartment where a dealer, purportedly working on behalf of a private collector, was holding them. During the course of the visit, Mrs. de Menil became suspicious of the frescoes true origins. Moved by the magnitude of the works as objects of artistic and spiritual importance, she resolved to rescue them. Upon their return to the United States, Mrs. de Menil and her colleagues quickly began to investigate the frescoes’ provenance—research pointed strongly to Cyprus, rather than Turkey, as their originating country.
With this information, the Menil Foundation sought the counsel of Herbert Brownell, former U.S. Attorney General, to conduct an inquiry into the rightful owner of the frescoes. A letter, including the black-and-white photographs produced by the seller, was sent to the governments of nine countries: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Romania, Syria, Turkey, and Yugoslavia. Three responded, but it was the government of Cyprus that provided unequivocal evidence that the frescoes had been stolen from a seven-hundred-year-old church in Lysi, a town in the Turkish occupied Famagusta district. The frescoes were the rightful property of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus.
The Menil Foundation proposed to the Holy Archbishop of Cyprus that the Foundation negotiate, at its own expense, the purchase of the frescoes on behalf of the Church. Dominique de Menil later recalled her mind-set during this tense situation:
The parties agreed on a rescue plan and, in January of 1984, the frescoes were purchased by the Menil Foundation on behalf of the Church and transported to London where the restoration process began.
At this time, the Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the Menil Foundation entered into an agreement under which the frescoes would be on long-term loan to the Menil Foundation, which would restore, protect, and ultimately build a space that would honor the frescoes as works of artistic and spiritual importance.
This landmark agreement resonated deeply with a fundamental premise of the Menil Foundation: to provide art experiences that honor the spiritual and personal as vital aspects of a shared human experience. This shared act of preservation, carried out with mutual respect, has enabled the frescoes to survive intact and continue to fulfill their ongoing purpose of providing spiritual inspiration to the thousands of people who visit the chapel each year.