On a sunny afternoon on April 29 at the magnificent Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Tasoula Hadjitofi, author of The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage, spoke for two hours to an appreciative audience about how she transformed herself from war refugee into one of the world’s foremost authorities on stolen cultural artifacts. Calling herself a “negotiator of peace” and an “ordinary girl who found herself in extraordinary circumstances,” Hadjitofi wove together stories from her childhood in Famagusta, Cyprus, the importance of religious artifacts to Orthodox Christians, and her dealings with law enforcement officers, archeologists, art dealers, and some of the shrewdest figures in the illicit art trade.
Endowed with an abundance of intelligence, grace, and warmth, Hadjitofi has devoted more than 30 years of her life to tracking down and repatriating thousands of icons, mosaics, and frescoes looted from churches after Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974. “Deep down,” Hadjitofi explained, “I am a human rights activist. The loss of one’s cultural heritage is devastating. I realized that I could become a victim or a fighter for justice.” In a world in which cultural cleansing is an all-too-common occurrence, we are fortunate that Tasoula Hadjitofi refused to become a victim.