Art Heist in Albania

Art theft is a crime!

Stop looting heritage!

This is a chronological database on the heritage loss in Albania as far as we have been able to gather from media outlets and reports.

The purpose of this database is to raise awareness and security for the protection of Albanian heritage.  Some stolen items have been recovered, seized or bought and returned…most have not, and many have been destroyed entirely.

According to the Albanian Penal Code, Section 138 on Stealing works of Art and Culture states that stealing works of art and culture shall be punished by fine or imprisonment up to five years, while stealing works national importance shall be punished by imprisonment from five to ten years.  Section 138a on Trafficking works of Art and Culture states a punishment of imprisonment from three to ten years, and for repeat offenders imprisonment from five to fifteen years. ( Added by Law No. 8733, dated 24.1.2001, Article 39), however nobody has ever been prosecuted with any severity until 2014.

This poster is the front-line of defense.

June 15, 2014- Elbasan. A 400 year old stolen church bell has been recovered by police, and 3 men have been arrested for trafficking.  Along with the bell, inside the Benz the men were driving were mobile phone equipment and police radios.

April 20, 2014– The Weapons Museum in Gjirokastra, a collection dating back to the Medieval Ages, was looted the other night, and 4 rifles, 4 pistols and 3 swords have gone missing.

September 4, 2013– The Orthodox church of “Shen Gjergji”, in Libofshe, Fier built in 1776, has been robbed for the 8th time. This time the thieves took the 4 wooden lions heads of the icons supporter, and other missing items include the church bell, carved wooden doors from 1776, and other carved wooden works from the time the church was built.

June 17, 2013-Shipskë, Voskopoje- thieves enter Church of St. George in the Korca region, taking the centre of the gold and wooden iconostasis, as well as other artworks and cash. This Church has been robbed 4 times.

May 7, 2013- Peshkopi, cleaners find that a replica of Skanderbeg’s Helmet is stolen from the Kastrioti collection in the Peshkopi museum.

March 2, 2013- “A week ago the Church of All Saints in Himara was looted*** the director of heritage for the Orthodox Albanian church, built in 1775.  Nine pillars of an 18th century iconostasis were carefully robbed from this church.

Feb, 2013- Mirdite, former Communist Labour Camp ‘Spac’ and current cultural heritage monument is looted for scrap metal.

Jan 31, 2013- Kakavija, Albanian Border Police seize stolen artworks in the trunk of a man’s car, along with crucifixes, paintings and iconostasis, they suspect that the items belong to churches in the south of the country.  Searching the man’s home in Durres, Police found 16 medieval jars, 11 antique marble columns, two amphoras and dozens of small objects

Dec 30 2012 – Jan 4, 2013– Valsh, Twice in one week looters attack 16th century church of Saint Paraskevi, damaging mainly the heads of icons done by Onufri, with axes and knives, stealing fragments.  More than 20 Orthodox churches and monasteries have been looted in the past 2 years.

November, 2012– The heroes of Vig sculpture, removed from Shkodra city and located by the city’s dump, has been partially cut and stolen for metal scrap.

Sept 17, 2012- Tirana, Gazeta Shekulli reports the National Gallery conducts its inventory once every five years.  At least 111 artworks are currently missing, in some cases other government institutions have ‘claimed’ them, while the whereabouts of others is unknown.

July 9, 2012– Korca, 60 original paintings, including 30 by Vangjush Mio have been stolen from Art Gallery “Guri i Madh”.  No signs of forced entry, no suspects.

June 9, 2012- Lezhe, Kisha e Shën Gjinit (St. John’s Church) bronze bell weighing 300kg stolen.

June 4, 2012– Finiq, In broad daylight and using a heavy machinery, looters dug several metres deep into a tomb believed to date from the Hellenistic period.

May 25, 2012– A 300 years old church bell is stolen from the Saint Mary’s church in VoskopojaVideo

May 12, 2012- Bylis, Two bronze vases stolen  from Bylis Archaeological Park, dating from the 1st century

March 2012– The monument of Independence inaugurated in November 2012 for the 100 years of Independence, has been partially stolen for metal scrap.

March 19, 2012- Within the last six months, six churches in Berat have been looted.  Most recently, three church bells were stolen, one from 1760, weighing 40kg.

Jan. 26, 2012- The 900 year old church in Rubik has been looted.  According to police, suspected robbers have taken items of historical value, while leaving no clues.

Dec., 2011- Mapo Journal reports that 2182 museum objects have been stolen in the last 20 years, only 8 of which were recovered.  Furthermore, of the 2182 inventoried items, only 243 of them had photo documentation, which are of poor resolution and quality.  2117 of the objects were stolen between 1991-1997.

Nov. 26, 2011- Gjirokastra,  Shen Thanasi Church, in Bularat village looted, 27 icons stolen and others found damaged on the floor. This is not the first time.

July 13, 2011- Issues discussed at 9th annual meeting of  the South East European Heritage Network, included a request to the Albanian government to intensify efforts to combat illegal trafficking in artworks and antiques.  The organization, consisting of 12 groups engaged in the preservation of cultural heritage in the Balkans, discussed specifically the following points in relation to Albanian heritage protection:

  • The lack of network of local guards, as well security measures within the sites and institutions that keep the collection
  • The private collections not recognized as a legal category that need to be registered and safeguarded
  • Illegal trafficking of cultural properties not recognized as a “heavy crime”

June 11, 2011– The Ethnographic Museum in Elbasan is looted and several objects of the 17th century went missing (jewelery, 2 guns from the 18th century, one smoking pipe, etc.). This museum was looted also in 1992 and 1997.

June, 2011- Permet,  Permet Municipality has filed a criminal lawsuit against the persons that demolished the Cultural Center “Naim Frasheri”. The lawsuit came after a Top-Channel TV program discovered that the Cultural Center was being secretly demolished illegally to build a church.  Workers have demolished the inside of the building, leaving only the exterior walls to conceal construction inside, as well as the bust of Naim Frasheri.

April 4, 2011- Lushnje, “Shën Gjergji”, Libofshë, theft of the church bell. Also recent thefts at this church include the complete disappearance of the iconostasis.

March 19, 2011- GjirokastraChurch in the village of Bularat looted and two icons taken.

Feb 9, 2011- Fier “…The bell and icons at the St. Koll (Shen Kollit) church, Daullas village, Libofshe commune have been stolen, and this is not the first time”

Dec. 2010-Feb. 2011- Gjirokastra, three consecutive robberies, stealing all the iconostasis icons.

October, 2010- At the end of October, 2010, the bronze bust of artist Sabri Tuci was stolen in Durres.  Previously, the letters attached the the description of the artwork had been removed as well.  They have likely been sold as scrap metal.

October, 2010- Unregistered 18th century icon sold at Charity Auction of the Prime Minister’s wife Liri Berisha highlights potential for organized art trafficking in Albania.  The painting was sold by the Shima family, of which both Rubens and Alush Shima have been directors of the National Art Gallery.

“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,” said Izet Duraku of Albania’s National Centre of Cultural Property Inventory, NCCPI. (See article 51 here)

June, 2010– Gramsh, The church of Grabova was looted and two foutons from 1802 went missing.

June 5, 2010– Gjirokastra, Dhuvjan Monestary robbed, icons, and a fabric with artistic and historical value were stolen, robbers also destroyed parts of carved wood iconostasis.  This was the fourth time this 11th century monestary has been looted.

Permet- St. Premte (St. Friday) church , two iconostases were looted dating from around 1800 and parts of the main gate of the st. Nicole (Shen Nikolli)

2010- Voskopoje- St. Athanasius’ Church (Kisha e Shën Thanasit) “…its icons have been stolen 5 times in the last 20 years. The last theft removed from the church icons painted in 1724.”

(Since 2002-2004, the five standing churches of Voskopoje have been on the World Monuments Fund’s watch list.  Since then, the WMF, the French NGO Patrimoine sans Frontières (PSF) and The European Union have given funds to the protection and restoration of the churches of Voskopoje. During that time, PSF organized an international restoration workshop with the help of WMF for the mural paintings of St. Athanas church.)

2010- report “…Thousands of valuable icons, being stored to prevent them from being stolen, are slowly decaying as the government hasn’t stumped up the money to restore them.”

Nov. 20, 2009– Permet “…parts of a 200 years old iconostas  were looted at St. Mary’s church (1817), Leuse village.

Nov. 16, 2009– Berat.  Police seized two antique statues, coins and a series of antique paintings and religious icons taken from the Ethnographic Museum. Arrested for trafficking of cultural heritage were the museum director, his son and one other, and placed under house arrest for 15 months, until being acquitted on the grounds that the items “were not National Cultural Heritage.”

Sept. 10, 2009– Korca “…3 centuries old church of St. Mary has been looted for the 5th time. Recently stolen items are two wooden carved dragons and a cross”.

July, 2009– Apollonia. A group of tomb raiders attempted to open a series of 2000 year old graves in the ancient city of Apollonia…and are suspected of being part of regional ring that smuggles artifacts.  “Antiques that are stolen…from archaeological sites directly remain undocumented and lost forever,” Lorenc Bejko, a rescue archaeologist and former director of the National Institute of Monuments

July 13, 2009– Voskopoje, Korce “…The Cross of the Dragon (17th century) and a wood arch with small icons are looted at St. George (Shen Gjergji) church in Shipske village.

June, 2009– Prague. Holocaust Era Assets Conference reports on Albania: No restitution law that covers movable property; Cultural Institutions do not conduct provenance research.

Jun 6, 2009- Gjirokastra “…7 icons stolen at the church of St. George ( Shen Gjergjit), Jorgucat village, 2 of which are from the 18th century and the rest from the 21st century. The valuable icons, for security reasons, were transfered to the St. George church in 1990 from the monastery Prof Ilia.

March 31, 2009– Lootings in the “King” mosque in Shkumbin city and orthodox church St. Thanas in Korca. The mosque has been looted 3 times, twice during 2009 and churches in Korca several times.

2008 and 2009 – Korca and Ereseke.  Dozens of bronze and stone tomb ornaments stolen from local cemeteries.

Jan 9, 2008– Gjirokastra ” …18 icons and cash are stolen in the church “Labova e Kryqit” (Labova of the Cross)

Dec 10, 2007- Fier, “St. Nicholas” Vanaj, Fier, the front door of the church Shën Nikolla is stolen along with the iconostasis.

Dec, 2007– Lushjna, “St. Thanas” Karavasta, stolen much of  the iconostasis, which now no longer exists.

2006-2011– Gjirokastra, Kisha e Shën Kollit (St. Nicholas) all the valuable items stolen, from icons and gold and silver liturgical items.

2006- Tirana, Government funding cut off for the Albanian League of Artists and Writers, their building re-claimed by the government to become the new Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

2006- Tirana, Government funding cut off for the Albanian League of Artists and Writers, their building re-claimed by the government to become the new Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

(Prior to the 1990s the League published a weekly paper, a bi-monthly literary magazine, a quarterly arts magazine and a series of books. In the early 1990′s, financial support fell drastically and led  to fragmentation and exclusion of film artists, musicians and visual artists.)

2006– Vlora, 8 objects stolen from the Ethnographic Museum.

Aug, 2006- Bust of Naum Veqilharxhi stolen in Korca.

May, 2003- The law number 9048 – For The Cutlural Heritage – comes into effect.

2001– While working in Albania, Jack Davis of the University of Cincinnati said that identifying and documenting is an urgent priority due to looting of archaeological sites throughout Albania.

August 26, 1999- The Albanian Helsinki Committee issued a report stating that unknown persons damaged or desecrated more than 10 Orthodox churches and monasteries in 1998 and 1999. In January a Greek Orthodox church was burned down, as was one in Metohi, along with another in Ksamil that was desecrated with human feces smeared on icons, then set on fire.

1999- Albanian Rescue Archaeology Unit established by Packard Humanities Institute.

December 1998- Durres, The director of the Durres Archeological Center, Ylber Osmanagaj, told ATA that the police have put it under protection upon the official request of the Academy of Sciences.

February, 1998- Shkodra, Masked gunmen raid and burn “Marin Barleti” Library to the ground.

January, 1998- “Protection of cultural heritage will be in 1998 one of the priorities of the work in the Ministry of Culture”

August, 1997- Berat, “…icons of the church of Onufri and Gorica were plundered…According to investigations, the theft is made by experienced thieves…Both churches have 90 original icons of Albanian masters of Medieval times and according to preliminary data ten of them have been stolen.”

1997- Korca, Tumulus Kamenica heavily looted.  Later excavations estimated that 15% of the burrial site had been looted or destroyed.

1997, Butrint, “…In September 1997 UNESCO sent an emergency mission to Butrint, which included the director of the Butrint Foundation, Sir Patrick Fairweather. As a result, Butrint was added to the World Heritage Sites in Danger List and a new inventory of the stores and an assessment of the stolen objects were commissioned.”

1997- Gjirokastra, Dhuvjan Monestary robbed, icons stolen.

1997- London, British newspaper reports: “Wanton looting of Albania’s national heritage has gone on unchecked ever since the country emerged from a Communist dictatorship six years ago. Hundreds of precious items, particularly icons, national costumes and priceless Roman-era sculptures, have vanished from museums and are believed to have sunk into a giant black market, which still thrives…Museums in Apolonia and Butrint, once considered among the most prestigious in Albania, are now virtually empty. A famous weapons museum in the southern town of Gjirokaster has lost every weapon it ever had. A history museum in Berat has been converted into a private video and bingo parlour. The whereabouts of its former contents are unknown. Even works of art from the post-war Hoxha era of Socialist Realism have found their way on to the black market and into the hands of collectors in Japan and the US.”

1997- Durres, Archaeology Museum heavily looted and damaged, at least 81 objects from the Illyrian period were stolen.

1997– Butrint, Again selective looting of marble busts and other artifacts.  “There was so much pointless vandalism”

1997– Phoenice, …”two headless statues representing siblings Artemis and Apollo, the ancient Greek gods of hunting and music, date from the second and third centuries BC respectively, stolen.

1997- Destruction or damage to libraries in Tirana, where the agricultural university library was looted and burned, destroying 50,000 volumes in Albanian language and 150,000 foreign language books; Saranda, where the Italian Library was destroyed; and Vlora, where a public library was heavily damaged.

January, 1997- Lushnje cinema burned down by protesters.

1996-1997- London, “…British newspapers reported in 1996 and 1997 how visiting Albanian VIPs had been given items taken from national collections (The Times 8/3/1997).”

1995– Voskopoje, Korce “…damaged frescoes in two churches and the St. Thanas church was looted twice in two years in August”.

Feb. 3, 1994– Tirana, four icons and the Epitaph of Gllavenica stolen from National History Museum.

1994- Tirana, A revolver belonging to late communist dictator Enver Hoxha, a pen and ink-well belonging to Albanian renaissance poet Ando Zako Cajupi were stolen from the National History Museum.

1994– London, news report from 1997 “…The Prime Minister, the Queen and the Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg may all have received stolen goods as official gifts from the President of Albania, Sali Berisha. The gifts, antiques from the Ottoman empire period, are believed to have been illegally removed from museums and national collections in Albania and passed on as personal mementos of the leader’s state visit to Britain in 1994.”

Jan. 1994Deutch Presse Agentur reports: Hundreds of items worth millions of dollars have been stolen over the past two years from Albania’s main archeological sites and museums and smuggled out of the country. “It’s a big, flourishing business, causing great damage to the country’s historical legacy,” Dashnor Kokonozi of the Ministry of Culture said in an interview. Recently stolen items include 60 early medieval coins taken from the National History Museum in Tirana. Museum officials said precious decorations and pottery items also have been stolen in recent months.

Jan. 1994Chicago Tribune reports: Albania is rich in archeological treasures, with about 300 archeological sites covering periods from prehistoric times up to the Middle Ages. “Over the past two years, the losses have been enormous,” said Namik Bodinaku, director of the National Museum of Archeology in Tirana. “Heads and bodies of ancient statues have been smuggled out of the country and sold in Greece and Italy.”  Police, who speak of a mafia-like network comprising foreigners and Albanian accomplices, say they have information about ancient Albanian sculptures being sold in Greece, Italy and Germany. Officials estimate about 400 medieval icons were illegally sold to Greek black-marketers in 1992 and 1993. They included six icons worth about $5 million stolen from the Monastery of Ardenica in southern Albania.

1991- Shkoder, Museum-House of poet and cleric Ndre Mjeda damaged and looted.

April, 1991– Butrint …entire site looted, among the stolen items was the head of Asklepios, classical God of Healing, stolen with other pieces from the Butrint Museum in April 1991.

1991- Apollonia Museum closed due to looting and most remaining items transfered to Institute of Archaeology in Tirana.  Museum is still closed today.

1991- Butrint, Marble portait of Livia, wife of Roman Emperor Augustus, stolen.

1991- Butrint, Fragmentary statue of Mercury leaning on a herm, stolen.

1991- Tirana, National Ethnographic Museum broken into and destroyed.

1991- Durres, 57 Archaeological items stolen.

1991- Gjirokastra, Museum of Arms looted.

1990-94- Tirana, National Archaeological Museum looted 4 times, 85 items taken.

1989- Labovës, (2013 report), 450 gram gold plated crusifix stolen from Labova Church, made of the wood from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.  Resident accuses Communist Govermnent & Secret Security.

(see also a catalogue of missing items from Butrint and Phoenice)

1967- All churches and mosques ordered to close, many of which were demolished, others used as stables, gyms, warehouses, weapons depots, army baes, etc.  A total of 2,169 churches, mosques, monasteries and other institutions were closed, with much of the contents either destroyed or sent to museums.

Of the 13 funtional mosques in Gjirokaster as of 1945, including a madrasa that had been in constant use since 1727, only the Gjirokaster Mosque remained after 1967, becoming a monument of culture in 1973 and serving as a training centre for circus performers.

1940-1943- The warrior of Sosikles, missing. “…The statue was sent to Italy in 1940 for the Mostra d’Oltremare in Naples; possibly destroyed by allied bombing in 1943.”

Headless statue of a draped woman (so-called Goddess of Butrint), missing.  “…The statue was sent to Italy in 1940 for the Mostra d’Oltremare in Naples; possibly destroyed by allied bombing in 1943.”

Statue in the type of the Large Herculaneum Woman, missing. “…The body was sent to Italy in 1940 for the Mostra d’Oltremare in Naples and is still unaccounted for. Upper part of head, which was carved separately, is missing. The head was stolen from the Butrint Archaeological Museum on 25 February 1991, but subsequently returned in July.”

(more information regarding items stolen from Butrint can be found here , here and here.)

1936-1944- Apollonia/Vlora, On October 8, 1936 the collection of archaeological finds at Apollonia were exhibited in the government building in Vlora, which suffered bombardment and looting during World War II.


Note: 2011, Austria – Painting from 1889 of Albanian Frontier Guards at Prayer by Richard Caton Woodville was reported stolen, and listed by Interpol as a recent theft.