Only the mayor and the priest were privy to this elaborate sting.
A pair of thieves targeted the heart of the small Italian town of Castelnuovo Magra, located about 100km from Florence. The duo gained access to Santa Maria Maddalena church, where they used a baseball bat to break the display case of “The Crucifixion” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger — a 17t-century Flemish masterpiece that depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ — and removed the artwork. The two made a clean getaway, leaving the town to question how their government could allow their most priceless treasure to be stolen.
That is, of course, until the mayor, Daniele Montebello, made it known that he had replaced the masterpiece with a worthless duplicate.
“Rumors were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras,” Montebello told Insider, adding,”I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn’t the original but kept up the secret.”
Tipped off in advance to the outrageous heist, Montebello worked seamlessly with the carabinieri — Italy’s military police — in order to install and monitor the fake. The impostor painting had actually hung in the church for nearly an entire month, while the newly installed security cameras kept constant watch.
After the fake was stolen, Montebello put on a good show for the thieves, acting as though the real thing had been stolen. He told the New York Times:
“We had sworn to the carabinieri to keep mum, so at first I had to act like I was desperate and fake grief over the loss.”
BBC reports that while the forgery was on display, some of the local faithful who regularly visit the church noticed something was off with the painting. These people knew that the mayor was lying when he reported the theft of the genuine article, but they played along without ever being advised of the sting.
The carabinieri are still investigating the closed-circuit footage and interviewing eyewitnesses who had been outside the church during the time of the robbery.
Town council member Francesco Marchese was one of the many residents who fell for the ploy along with the thieves. He seemed very relieved when he told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro:
“You have to believe me. I was not informed. Even if I am in the town council of the municipality, only the mayor and the priest … were informed by the police that there were some rumors about the fact the painting could be stolen.”
The priest, Rev. Alessandro Chiantaretto, noted that he believed the thieves had studied his daily routine and waited until they knew he would be out of the building to strike.
“The Crucifixion” was painted in oil by Pieter Brueghel the Younger on five oak panels. Brueghel the Younger spent much of his career copying his father’s — Pieter Bruegel the Elder — paintings. As the Elder’s original no longer exists, this is the last known copy of “The Crucifixion,” which was donated to the parish about a century ago.
The masterpiece has had close calls with robbers before; it was hidden from the Nazis in WWII and was actually stolen from the church in 1981, although it was recovered about a month later.
Protecting the priceless works of art displayed in many of Italy’s fine churches is an important matter for the Italian carabinieri, as churches are much more difficult to secure than a gallery or museum. Insider reports that in 2017, more than 100 works of religious art worth a combined €7 million ($7.9 million) were recovered following an investigation by the Italian police.