45 years on, 'lost' masterpieces see light in split Cyprus

NICOSIA, Cyprus — It took more than 45 years, but 219 paintings thought lost or stolen that include some considered to be among the most significant works Greek Cypriot artists have produced were put on display Monday.

One such work by artist George P. Georghiou has been hailed as one of Cyprus' “most iconic paintings.”

The oil on plywood painting encapsulates the Greek Cypriot armed uprising against British colonial rule during the latter half of the 1950s that culminated in the island's independence.

“This is some of the most prized art in Cyprus and Greece,” said Yiannis Toumazis, a senior Greek Cypriot official on a committee made up of members from both communities that's been tasked with fostering trust through culture.

Officials say the paintings are of incalculable artistic value, but some could carry price tags well into six figures.

A sample of the paintings were unveiled at an exhibit Monday at a disused hotel straddling a United Nations-controlled buffer zone that cuts across Cyprus' capital Nicosia.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, were on hand to launch the exhibit before an array of guests that included artists from both communities.

The works had languished in the basement of a cultural centre in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot northern third of ethnically divided Cyprus.

They were put in storage there after being rounded up from private collections and public galleries in the aftermath of a 1974 Turkish invasion that was triggered by a coup aiming at union with Greece. Although Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state, only Turkey recognizes it.

But an agreement last year aimed at boosting trust between Cyprus' Greek and Turkish speaking communities saw the paintings re-emerge.

“To see the paintings returned was one of the most sentimental moments of my life,” said Androula Vassiliou, the committee's Greek Cypriot co-chair.

In return, Turkish Cypriots received rare archival footage from state broadcaster CyBC of Turkish Cypriot cultural and sporting events dating from 1955 to the early 1960s.

The footage is a visual window to a past that had until recently lingered only in memory, said Turkish Cypriot committee co-chair Kani Kanol.

Whether it's Cypriot folk dances performed by Turkish Cypriots or Turkish Cypriot tennis legend Ilter Sami in action, the footage comprises a historical record that was previously inaccessible.

Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader, hailed the exhibit as a "manifestation of the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots' respect for each other's artistic and cultural values."

“The common language of art, which is universal, serves as a unifying force."

The exhibit was a bright spot amid prolonged uncertainty over whether moribund reunification talks would be relaunched soon.

“Art and cultural activities can tangibly contribute to efforts of achieving peace and reconciliation," said Anastasiades.

Menelaos Hadjicostis, The Associated Press