The scene: Church of Santa Maria Maddalena in Castelnuovo Magra, a town of less than 8,500 people in the province of La Spezia, region of Liguria.
- Don Alessandro Chiantaretto, parish priest of Santa Maria Maddalena;
- Daniele Montebello, mayor of Castelnuovo Magra;
- “The Crucifixion” by the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger;
- The Special Unit of the Carabinieri that investigates art theft;
- Two art thieves;
- A talkative pensioner; and
- The international press
The date: Around the Ides of March 2019
It was the middle of the day in bright sunlight. The parish priest of Santa Maria Maddalena was on his usual mission to bring communion to housebound parishioners. Two men entered the empty church and headed directly for the side chapel. There, in a glass case was the precious “Crucifixion” by the Flemish painter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638). They worked quickly. They smashed the case with a hammer, removed the painting worth at least 3 million euros, and sped off in a white Peugeot. The screeching car attracted the attention of a resident, who saw that the church door was wide open, and raised the alarm. The priest, the mayor, and the townspeople were all distraught.
But what really happened? The Carabinieri had been tipped off weeks earlier that burglars had set their sights on the Brueghel painting. Don Alessandro was also worried about the increasing attention to this church. “Tourists have always arrived from Belgium, Holland, and even Japan. Lately, however, also many Italians. When I started to find beer bottles left in front of the painting, I suspected that among the tourists could also be those who were interested in the painting for less honorable reasons.” Don Alessandro loves art and knows this Flemish painting by heart because as a child he loved to draw three subjects in particular: Batman, Donald Duck, and the works of Brueghel.
So the Carabinieri, the parish priest, and the town mayor hatched a plan. They removed the original painting for safe keeping, substituted a fake, and installed security cameras. And they agreed to keep this secret. But the townspeople weren’t easily fooled. Mayor Daniele Montebello said, “I had residents in my office, suspicious because this painting looked different. I tried to play it down, telling everyone that it was just an impression.” The copy, in fact, was much brighter than the original and lacked the typical roughness of the brushstrokes.
When news of the theft got out, Castlenuovo found itself the center of attention. One talkative pensioner could not resist the temptation to tell the story. The mayor was flooded with phone calls and interview requests not only from the Italian media, but also from the New York Times, CNN, and Canadian newspapers, among others. The real story is that the thieves stole a fake painting by falling into a trap set by the Carabinieri.
The target painting is an oil on five oak panels that shows the Crucifixion from above. It may be based on a work done by the artist’s father, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. It is similar to another of Bruegel the Younger’s work which is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The younger Brueghel’s auction record stands at more $10.7 million, set at Christie’s in 2011 for The Battle Between Carnival and Lent.
What now? Father Chiantaretto says that the church usually remains open all day, so visitors can pray or appreciate its many artworks. But he fears that the theft—even of a fake—would force him to limit access. “When churches are like museums, you either must have staff or volunteers, or you close them.” Italy remains a popular destination for thieves because of its rich cultural heritage and the plethora of churches –filled with art — that remain open and free to the public. The good news is that art crime has fallen in Italy from a reported 906 incidents in 2011 to 449 in 2016.
And this is no doubt in part due to the vigilance of the Special Unit of the Carabinieri, which is investigating this case under the strictest secrecy. The only thing the Carabinieri will say is that this was probably a case undertaken on commission and that locating the thieves is “only a matter of time.”