Last week I described the set of stamps that Italy issued to honor Il Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale (Tpc), the special branch of the Carabinieri dedicated to the protection of Italy’s artistic heritage. Five of the six stamps represent works recovered by this special Command—one for each decade since its founding in 1969. The stamps are held in a folio with the background showing the Natività con i Santi Lorenzo e Francesco d’Assisi, or Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis of Assisi, painted by Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. It disappeared from L’Oratorio di San Lorenzo Church in Palermo in 1969, six months before the Carabinieri Command was established. It remains the Holy Grail of the Carabinieri, is among the FBI’s 10 most wanted works, and has captured the imagination of art enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.
Among the speculations are that the painting was eaten by rats or that Totò Riina, the late mafia “boss of bosses,” used it as a beside rug. In fact, investigators have been following the path of the Mafia, which could have used the painting as a bargaining chip with various institutions. Other theories are that it was destroyed, perhaps buried in the countryside of Palermo or burned by the Mafia, or even exchanged with the Camorra and then tragically disappeared in the earthquake of 1980 in Irpinia.
After 50 years, hopes of solving one of the most infamous crimes in art history were reignited when investigators said they believed the painting was in Switzerland. A mafia informant told them that it had been in the possession of Gaetano Badalamenti, a Sicilian boss of bosses who was known as one of the ringleaders of heroin trafficking and that he organized the painting’s transfer to Lugano. It was delivered to a Swiss antique dealer who supposedly burst into tears when he first saw it. The investigation is still underway and is top secret.
Despite the Carabinieri’s record of success—more than 3,000 art and archaeology objects have been found—more than a million remain to be found. According to a Bulletin issued by the Carabinieri, more than 8,000 items went missing in Italy in 2018. They include archaeological artefacts, ancient weapons and medieval texts besides the ever-popular paintings and statues. Half of these thefts were from places of worship, according to Lt. Col. Massimiliano Quaglierella from the Carabinieri: “Many Italian churches are bona fidemuseums, which are accessible places of worship and not always equipped with sufficient security measures.”
Stolen items are sold illegally, pass through different owners and often end up in the homes of the wealthy or in museums. It is not unusual for 30 years to go by before a stolen item reaches an owner, who is often unaware that the piece had been stolen in the first place.
Italy’s Monuments Men have many investigative tools and weapons in the fight against stolen art. Every day 300 Carabinieri work on these difficult projects; they have at their disposal a database of 6 million works. Their methods vary: For example, in March 2019 thieves broke into a display case in the Santa Maria Maddalena church in the town of Castelnuovo Magra to steal the Crucifixion, a painting by the by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger. But the Carabinieri had been tipped off and had substituted a fake. The original remains in safe keeping. See the post, “The Trap” (June 27, 2019). As for Caravaggio’s Nativity taken from the Palermo church, according to Quagliarella, “We will not give up. The Nativity is our top priority.”