How do you recover a stolen masterpiece? As most experts will tell you, it’s not as easy as you might think. In fact, scores of stolen works over the years have never even been recovered. That’s the case with famous heists—for example, the 13 masterpieces from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990—as well as lesser-known ones. But there are fortunate cases where the works were indeed found, and one involves a Caravaggio and Father Marius Zarafa, a Maltese priest and art historian.
Zarafa was the director of Malta’s National Museums in 1984, when, during visiting hours, thieves took Caravaggio’s St. Jerome in Valletta. Displayed in St. John’s Co-Cathedral, an important example of High Baroque architecture, Caravaggio’s St. Jerome was stolen from the cathedral’s attached museum galleries with precision. How it was lost—and, later, found—is the subject of a new episode of PBS’s long-running series Secrets of the Dead. The story, as art historian Sandro Debono points out, feels almost too good to be true. As he recalls in the documentary, “This theft reads very much like a piece of fiction.”
The two thieves arrived in the late afternoon, paid their admission tickets, and headed upstairs to where St. Jerome was on view. They put up a “Work in Progress” sign at the entrance of the room and began their work to steal the painting. They took it off the wall, placed it on the floor, cut it from its stretcher, rolled it up, and threw it out a window. They then grabbed the work from outside and headed to their get-away car, where a third person was waiting to drive away.
Alongside a reenactment of the theft, this documentary provides a concise view of Malta’s history and Caravaggio’s connection to it. In the early years of the 17th century, Caravaggio worked to establish his reputation as one of the day’s most important artists and an enfant terrible, with a repatuation for getting drunk, hanging out with courtesans, having a bad temper, and picking fights. After a 1607 duel that led to the accidental death of his opponent (the artist may have only meant to castrate the guy), Caravaggio fled to Malta. In a bid to get a papal pardon for his crime, he tried to ingratiate himself with the Order of St. John by creating several important works for them, including St. Jerome.
“This is where we start to see Caravaggio’s ability to enter into the motions of the mind,” says Cynthia de Giorgio, a scholar at the St. John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation. “When you look at St. Jerome there are moments when you actually forget that it’s a painting. It almost looks like a photograph of a real person.”
That’s likely why the thieves chose St. Jerome to steal. It’s unclear how long it took before the museum discovered that the Caravaggio was gone, though officials could thank an American tourist for inadvertently alerting them to its theft. That tourist had come to see it, found “Work in Progress” sign, and complained. When the curators entered the gallery, all they found was the empty frame still on the floor. The thieves had left without a trace, without any footprints nor fingerprints.
The work’s theft caused an international scandal, but without any leads the investigation went cold for two years. What investigators later discovered was that, during that time, the thieves had tried to sell the work in Europe and the United States without any success. As De Giorgio says, “Who would touch a work of art like this? Not even the greediest of collectors. And that actually is proof that the painting is priceless.”
In 1986, the thieves contacted Zefara, sending him a Polaroid of the painting with a coffee pot placed on top of it, in a particularly sacrilegious move. This led to Zefara have daily calls, sometimes several in day, with the thieves for almost a year. With little help from the government, Zefara remained dedicated to recovering the work. He got authorization for a wiretap that allowed him to trace the call to a shoe leather factory, and because of that, he was later able to identify the possible thieves before the police and military step in to apprehended them and got the work back.
Unfortunately, the work had been seriously damaged after being rolled up for two years. Zefara, determined as ever, saw to it that the work would be brought back to its former glory. He hand-delivered it to a conservation studio in Rome. Custom agents told him that that he had no authorization for importing the work, to which he said, “This is not a painting—this is a Caravaggio.”
No one was ever convicted of the theft. The two men who were charged died amid a legal battle over whether their rights were violated by the wiretaps. For Zefara, all that matters is that St. Jerome now hangs in its rightful place back at the St. John Co-Cathedral. “Looking back on this sad event for history,” Zefara says in the documentary, “I think it was a tragic comedy, and for me, it was my agony and my ecstasy. Now, I get full satisfaction looking back that in some way I had helped to restore one of Malta’s most important treasures.”
Secrets of the Dead: The Caravaggio Heist premiered on PBS on Wednesday and is now available to steam via pbs.org/secrets and the PBS Video app.