Whose Art Is It, Anyway?

In February two stolen frescoes paid for and restored by Dominique de Menil will be unveiled in a new Eastern Orthodox chapel in Houston. The issue of whether they belong in Texas is controversial—but the story of how they ended up here is downright Byzantine.

ON A HOT JUNE DAY THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, Dominique de Menil flew to Munich to meet a Turkish businessman named Aydin Dikmen who wanted to sell her two Byzantine frescoes. Mrs. de Menil was a charming and elegant woman with a large fortune and social connections that stretched around the globe; Dikmen had a sketchy background, was neither charming nor elegant, and would later figure in a scandalous trial that would capture the attention of the art world. But Mrs. de Menil didn’t know anything about Dikmen at the time, and that afternoon, she and several of her associates piled into two Mercedes that he had arranged for and set off to look at the frescoes. Based on photographs that she had been shown, Mrs. de Menil anticipated that the Turkish businessman was going to show her work of unusually fine quality.

Dikmen led the caravan from the center of Munich to a shabby working-class neighborhood on the edge of the city. The members of Mrs. de Menil’s party were nonplussed by this, as they had expected a more fashionable destination, but Dikmen explained that he was using an address in the neighborhood as a cheap place to store the frescoes temporarily. He then led Mrs. de Menil and the others up a flight of stairs and into an apartment where they encountered an extraordinary scene: The only illumination in the place came from two candles (Dikmen explained that the apartment had no electricity), and by their dim light, the group could make out two segments of plaster, propped against a wall. One featured the image of an angel, and the other depicted John the Baptist. The priceless frescoes had been crudely broken into several dozen pieces—the rest of them were packed in a huge crate. Mrs. de Menil was sickened by what she saw. “The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty,” she said recently. “It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital.”

And so she decided to rescue the frescoes. Over the last decade, Mrs. de Menil has subsidized a painstaking restoration of the works, and she commissioned her son, Francois, who is a 51-year-old architect, to design a chapel in Houston to house them. When the Byzantine Fresco Chapel opens to the public in February, she will unveil what is perhaps the most significant example of Byzantine art to be found in this country.

But she doesn’t legally own it. In the months that followed her strange trip to Munich, Mrs. de Menil learned that Dikmen had lied to her about the origin of the frescoes—and that in fact they had been stolen. When she decided

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...