Maria apparition in the mail sorting centre

In 2019, a gold-edged image of the Mother of God, found during a customs check of mail items, kept Rob Mangelsdorf, a cultural property contact person, busy for quite some time. Was this icon, sent from Russia without an export permit, as old and authentic as it looked? An expert would have to produce the answer.

“Colleagues have been asking me to assess a wide range of objects d’art from all over the world for years now. However, I’d never seen an icon before, really. So I was surprised when someone sent me a series of digital photos of a beautiful Eastern orthodox painting of Maria on wood, and asked me to check it out. He had found it during a check at a mail company, it was packed in an envelope from Russia and according to him, it looked pretty authentic. But the customs value given was only about 18 Euros...”

“When I studied the images, I had to admit it looked as if the object had been made a couple of centuries ago. The surrounding gold leaf had been worn naturally, for instance, as if it had been worshipped and touched by many believers over a very long period of time. The back of the panel looked pretty worn too. Was this really an old and valuable icon? If it was, there should have been Russian export papers and it should have been given a realistic value. Was this a case of smuggling?”

“I handed over the case to the Information and Heritage Inspectorate, with whom we’ve always had a pleasant working relationship. After some investigation, they told me that, among other things, the wood and the craquelure pointed to a younger age. In the end, an expert who had been consulted concluded that it was a ‘fake example of a Madonna icon after an old original’. So the object was, indeed, not real and had little financial value.”

“Still, this case had an interesting twist in its tail. The recipient of the parcel turned out to be a well-known art dealer, with expensive icons on his website. That’s why the Inspectorate tracked the object for a while. They’ve also spoken to the police, who are extremely alert to art forgery. As far as I know, this particular icon has never been offered on the market as being authentic.”

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2019’. Click here to read the full publication.

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