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.
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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, a police statement had said.
North Macedonian Culture Minister Bisera Kostadinovska thanked Albanian authorities. Skopje had officially put in a request for the return of the icons in 2018, after which Albanian experts examined and checked the pieces.
In 2022, the two ministries signed the agreement for their return during a joint Cabinets’ meeting in Skopje, the first of the 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.
Both Albania and North Macedonia have launched full membership negotiations with the European Union.
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