On the evening of Thursday, November 19, 2015, 17 masterpieces were stolen from the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio in Verona. Three masked men dressed in black entered the museum at the change of guard and tied up and gagged the security officer and a cashier. One robber watched the hostages while the others raided the exhibition rooms. They took the security officer’s keys and used his car to escape. (What if he had had a FIAT 500?)
Their haul included “The Lady of Licnidi” (ca. 1602) by a young Peter Paul Rubens, “Holy Family with a Saint” (ca. 1500) by Andrea Mantegna, “Madonna of the Quail” (ca. 1420) by Antonio Pisano (known as Pisanello), “King Solomon’s Court” (ca. 1575) by Jacopo Tintoretto, as well as works by Jacopo Bellini, Giovanni Francesco Caroto, and Hans de Jode.
“Someone sent them, they were skilled, they knew exactly where they were going,” said Verona mayor Flavio Tosi. A museum spokesperson explained that the thieves arrived after the building emptied but before the alarms had been activated. Footage from the 48 cameras in and around the premises has been given to the police.
A theft of this magnitude, one of the most extensive in Italy’s history, should have been the headline in Italy’s newspapers. But amidst the coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris, it fell to “back page” news. I didn’t read about it for 2 days, but then there appeared a pretty scathing condemnation of Italy’s protection of its artistic heritage:
“What a strange country we have. For lack of funds, Italy leaves virtually unattended works of art exhibited in public facilities. At the same time, the state invests in a bureaucracy that complicates life for collectors and sellers. If you have at home the work of a master, you will undergo controls, audits, endless piles of documents, exhausting processes. But the government can afford to expose dozens of magnificent paintings with access at the disposal of criminals. It is too busy dispersing money, perquisites and energy in a thousand initiatives rather than giving the utmost attention to protect the treasures of our extraordinary cities.
“Some hypotheses claim that the stolen works would become part of the collection of some eccentric billionaire. They are unsalable because of their notoreity and therefore the most plausible and desirable hypothesis remains – that of a ransom demand. Can there be a madman willing to store them in secret forever and pass them clandestinely to his descendants?
“With this theft, part of the historical and artistic heritage of Italy has been mutilated. Not to mention the economic damage. The estimate for the 17 paintings at 15 million euros is extremely undervalued. How is it possible to quantify the price of the “Holy Family with a Saint” by Mantegna? In the last 30 years on the auction market, the only painting positively attributed to Mantegna was a small tempera, “Descent into Limbo,” which sold at Sotheby’s in 2003 for $28.6 million.
“What is the price of all this? High. Very high. Both economic and moral. The defense of our artistic heritage goes hand-in-hand with the defense of our civilization. Our values are stored in our history.”