Italy foils art thieves by swapping Brueghel painting for a fake

Thieves who stole a Flemish master's painting of the crucifixion from a church in northern Italy this week are in for a disappointment: police say they had secretly swapped the original for a fake.

Italy foils art thieves by swapping Brueghel painting for a fake
The Crucifixion by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, which is safe and sound despite an attempt to steal it.

The genuine Crucifixion, painted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in the 17th century and worth an estimated €3 million, remains safe and sound in Castelnuovo Magra, a small town in Liguria near Italy's north-west coast, despite an attempt to steal it on Wednesday morning.

Thieves used a hammer to break into the display case in the local church of Santa Maria Maddalena, making off with what they assumed to be the valuable artwork.

But unbeknownst to them, carabinieri had discreetly removed the original for safekeeping over a month ago after getting wind of a plot to steal it.

Santa Maria Maddalena, the church in Castelnuovo Magra where the painting is (usually) kept. Photo: Davide Papalini – CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

“Rumours began to circulate that someone could steal the work and the carabinieri decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some surveillance cameras,” explained Mayor Daniele Montebello, who helped keep the subterfuge under wraps before and even after the heist.

He was quoted in the Italian press lamenting the presumed loss on Wednesday morning, telling reporters that the theft was “a hard blow for our community”.

READ ALSO: Police back on the trail of ‘world's most wanted' stolen Caravaggio painting

But by that evening he dropped the pretence, thanking the police and churchgoers for helping to lay the trap: “Some members of the congregation noticed that the painting on display was not the original, but they didn't give away the secret,” Montebello said.

Police are now looking for two men who were seen removing the fake painting and driving off with it in a Peugeot car, according to La Repubblica. They are believed to have stolen it on commission.

The town of Castelnuovo Magra in Liguria. Photo: Davide Papalini – CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

It's at least the third close call for The Crucifixion since it was donated to the church by a wealthy family just over a century ago. During World War Two it had to be hidden from Nazi soldiers, who were infamously prone to helping themselves to other people's cultural treasures; while art thieves actually managed to make off with the painting in 1981, before being tracked down and returned by police a few months later.

Painted in oil on five oak panels, the scene is a copy by Brueghel the Younger of one of his famous father's works, now lost. Art historians say he added his own distinct style and colour to the painting, which includes a mysterious fourth cross in the background behind the traditional three.

Italian police have long struggled to fight thefts from churches, which store valuable heritage but much harder to secure than museums. Some of the treasures stolen include a lost masterpiece by Caravaggio, taken from a church in Palermo 50 years ago.

In 2017, police recovered more than 100 artworks taken in 24 thefts from churches and other religious institutions in southern and central Italy, with a combined value of €7 million.


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Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.