Friday, November 26, 2010

30 Oct 2010 / 16:25
Albania Struggles to Catalogue its Unknown Treasures

The sale of an ancient but unknown icon has highlighted the need for a central register of all historic artifacts, which might save them from being trafficked illegally.
By Ben Andoni

A previously unknown 18th-century icon sold in October at a charity ball hosted by Liri Berisha, wife of the Albanian premier, has stirred a brief frenzy in Tirana.

Some critics in the media accused her and the children’s foundation that she runs of trafficking in religious artifacts - a charge denied by the collector who offered it for sale.

But as the controversy rumbles on, heritage experts say the affair has highlighted the dangers facing many Albanian art treasures.

Lying in private collections, they are not being catalogued, which increases the risk of being trafficked into the illegal art market.

The icon sold at auction for 75,000 euro to Kosovo Albanian businessman Hetem Ramadani is believed to be the work of the Albanian painter, Kostandin Shpataraku. It formerly belonged to the family of the contemporary painter, Alush Shima.

The Shima family had not registered the icon with Albania’s National Centre of Cultural Property Inventory, NCCPI. Ramadani only registered it there after buying it in the auction.

The centre’s mission is to register all of Albania’s cultural assets and movable properties held by museums, galleries, art institutes, religious communities and private collectors.

Dashnor Kononozi, founder and former director of the NCCPI, is not surprised that the auctioned icon was not registered earlier.

It is not common for private collectors to register their cultural treasures, even though it would be in their best interests, he notes.

The centre was founded in the early Nineties after the breakdown of law and order that swept Albania following the collapse of communism led to numerous thefts from museums, archeological parks, and especially religious sites; these were often remote and unguarded.

When the authorities requested help for their recovery from Interpol, the international police force sought evidence and information about the treasures in question, which made the creation of the NCCPI a necessity.

“I asked the authorities at the time for information on the stolen items but it did not exist,” Kokonozi recalled.

After conducting his own research to find out how such a centre might function, Kokonozi convinced the World Bank to finance it.

The NCCPI creates a form of passport for every object it catalogues, recording its type, title, author, owner, where it was found, its current location and the period or movement it belongs to. Pictures accompany the data.

The centre serves thus as a national heritage database as well as a property registration office.

By law, owners of artifacts like the Shpataraku icon are obliged to register them in the inventory of the cultural property center. But nearly two decades after its creation, the NCCPI’s current director, Izet Duraku, admits this rarely occurs.

“The cataloguing of artifacts in museums, art galleries and archeological parks is almost finished,” he said, “but the identification and registration of artifacts sitting in private collections is still in its infancy.

“The more time passes without these artifacts being registered, the greater the risk of unrecoverable damage to this patrimony,” Duraku added.

According to Duraku, some private owners do not register valuable family heirlooms, such as gold-laced traditional costumes, because they are not aware of their real value.

Others have more sinister reasons for keeping quiet about treasures in their possession.

“Some owners - far from being ignorant of the value of their treasures - are shy of registering them because they hope to trade them on the illegal art market,” Duraku maintained.

The NCCPI suffers from a lack funding, a problem common to most cultural heritage institutions in Albania. Poor finances mean the centre cannot launch the kind of public awareness campaign that might prompt more owners of artifacts to register them.

For that reason alone, the director of the centre is not unhappy about the recent furor over the auction of the icon. “The row created in the last few weeks by the sale of the religious icon has highlighted the need to register cultural artifacts,” he noted.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
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