Italy’s embarrassment of riches—with 50 officially recognized sites, it tops the UNESCO World Heritage List—has long made the country particularly vulnerable to looting. Nevertheless, heritage heists have declined in recent years. In 2013, they dropped by one-quarter, to 676 from the previous year’s 891.
The drop can be attributed to the fact that museums are more closely guarded than in the past, and stolen objects offered for sale at auctions, art fairs, galleries, or online can be identified more easily thanks to the massive data bank maintained by the art squad of the Carabinieri paramilitary police. This electronic resource contains almost six million images of looted objects, including some that have been missing for decades. A new smartphone app, called “iTPC,” also created by the Carabinieri, now connects to the data bank, so potential buyers, from individuals to auction houses, don’t have to be afraid of unwittingly acquiring stolen works.
Tighter controls and greater international cooperation have also increased recoveries. Last October the culture ministry, the Carabinieri art squad, and the cultural department of the Italian Bishops Conference gave a joint press conference celebrating the recovery of 60 paintings, reliquaries, and chalices stolen in the course of 26 thefts in Rome alone over the past decade. Their estimated value is around $1.35 million.
Successful sleuthing also brought about the recovery in Tuscany in December 2013 of a 15th-century panel painting, Adoration of the Child, stolen from a seminary in the Emilia-Romagna region in 1970. Considered to be a work by Filippo Lippi, it was reattributed after its recovery to Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino.
Occasionally, a stolen cult object winds up in a museum. In 2009 the Cleveland Museum of Art was obliged to return to Italy a rare 14th-century cross from Trequanda, a small town near Arezzo, in Tuscany. The cross, which disappeared after World War II, was purchased by the museum in 1977. Almost 17 inches tall, and composed of gilded and enameled copper decorated with biblical scenes, it was borne atop a staff during religious processions.
The nature of both plunder and plundering has changed in recent years, according to former culture minister Massimo Bray. “The new millennium seems to have given us a new phenomenon with growing dimensions: the depredation of the ecclesiastical heritage,” Bray said at the October press conference. Paintings, statues, reliquaries, antique candelabra, and other objects stolen from churches amount to 44 percent of all art thefts in Italy today.
The upsurge is in fact comparative, for in terms of numbers, church thefts have fallen sharply. The thousand or so objects stolen from Italian churches during the first eight months of last year represented a drop of one-third over the same period the previous year. In Rome alone, church thefts fell by two-thirds in 2013, and in northeast Italy by 57 percent.
It is also good news that thieves today are less likely than in the past to find a masterpiece unattended in a church or monastery, thanks to the introduction of diocesan museums in which precious items can be protected. Still, if the objects targeted by thieves are less than masterpieces, they remain extremely fine works of art. They include carved-wood candelabra, ciboria, and chalices, as well as l8th-century Christmas crèche figures and statue adornments, such as the silver crown yanked from the head of the statue of Saint Apollonia in the church of Santa Maria Assunta at Ariccia, near Rome, last March.
“Churches today remain a primary objective, especially for delinquents, because many of the stolen objects of silver or what looks like gold are easy to sell,” Captain Gianluca Ferrari of the art squad told ARTnews. “But the problem is complex because the artworks represent more than a decoration—they must be safeguarded while respecting their liturgical and devotional character.”
According to Stefano Alessandrini, special consultant to the culture ministry and to the Italian state advocate general, “It’s important that the churches themselves have taken action.” However, he adds, “In tens of thousands of churches in Italy the paintings and objects are still not catalogued. It’s very much up to the individual parish priest to do so. Not all of them have.”
In pawnshops in the town of Forte dei Marmi, in northern Tuscany, Carabinieri recently recovered some 50 pounds of gold items stolen from churches and sold by weight. Elsewhere an entire tabernacle was hacked from a wall. In some cases, stolen chalices and ciboria were intentionally damaged in order to suggest that the church itself had gotten rid of them because they were no longer usable. Fortunately, some suspicious pawnbrokers notified police.
The exception to the rule was the theft of a magnificent Baroque altarpiece by Guercino, Madonna with Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory the Wonderworker (1639), which was taken during the night of August 12 from the unguarded Church of San Vincenzo in the historic center of Modena. According to the art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, the painting may be worth at least $8 million. “Perhaps it was by foreigners who don’t know that it is virtually unsalable,” Sgarbi told an Italian reporter.
To some observers, the large size of the altarpiece (293 by 184.5 cm) suggests a professional gang at work, possibly in anticipation of a ransom payment; to date, however, no ransom request has been received.
A number of notorious cases remain unsolved. Forty-four years ago thieves stole Caravaggio’s large Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo. Painted in 1609, the work is valued at $20 million, and the theft is on the FBI’s list of Top Ten Art Crimes.
Mafia turncoats gave police not entirely convincing reports that the painting had been eaten by pigs and rats and the remnants burned. “I hope instead that it is still hidden somewhere and that it will eventually be discovered,” said Alessandrini.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 60 under the title “Preying on Churches.”