Catholic Church Clamps Down on Art Theft
By Andrea Vogt, Bologna
7:55PM GMT 28 Nov 2014
Forty per cent of stolen goods trafficked out of Italy are pieces of religious art, according to the country’s special Carabinieri art crime unit.
The new measures, issued jointly by Italy’s cultural ministry, the Italian Bishops’ Conference and the Carabinieri, call for wide-ranging security measures to be implemented in churches, chapels, convents and libraries, including more video surveillance, reduced opening hours, replacing original art works with copies and regular inspections of special sites.
“We have a duty to a precious artistic heritage that is centuries old and absolutely priceless,” said General Mariano Mossa, commander of the Carabinieri unit tasked with tracking down stolen treasures.
The guidelines have been published in the wake of the theft of a Renaissance masterpiece in Modena, in northern Italy, in August. Madonna with St John the Evangelist by Guercino – estimated to be worth £5 million – was spirited away in the middle of the night after alarms failed to go off in the church of San Vincenzo.
The protection of Italy’s religious patrimony is no simple task, with antiquities scattered throughout its public spaces, including 95,000 churches.
“Abbeys, monasteries, basilicas, cathedrals are testament to the history of Christianity over two millennia,” said Dario Franceschini, culture minister. “It is fundamental to counter theft and the international clandestine traffic of Italy’s religious patrimony.”
Art crime is a $6 billion a year business according to the United Nations, the fourth most lucrative sector in international crime after drugs, money laundering and illegal arms shipments.
But dozens of stolen artworks are quietly returned to Italy each year thanks to aggressive investigation by the Carabinieri art squad. Working with Interpol and the FBI, its 12 units have rescued numerous artworks that have passed from the black market into the legitimate art world over the past 40 years.
The 14th-century Dormitio Virginis by Andrea di Bartolo that was looted by Nazi troops from the Tuscan home of US collector Frederick Mason Perkins was spotted by Italian police earlier this year after a British auction house put it up for sale with a starting price of £164,800.
A golden crucifix that disappeared from the tiny Tuscan village of Trequanda in the 1960s turned up in 1981 in the Cleveland Museum of Art after passing through a Munich auction house and a private American collection. In 2008, after lengthy diplomatic manoeuvres, the museum agreed to return the crucifix, along with a dozen other antiquities to Italy. Today it is on display behind glass in a small church near Siena.
Sometimes the art ends up decorating an unscrupulous aficionado’s living room. Detectives found a precious jewelled gold reliquary that had been stolen in 1993 from a Rome cathedral in a private residence in Rimini. It had been given to the Basilica of St. Clement in 1254 by the bishop who became Pope Alexander IV. Now it is back there cathedral under tight security.
For the past 18 years, church officials have been building a searchable online database of up to 4 million pieces of religious art, which can be used by police in the the event of a theft.
This story was originally published in The Telegraph here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/11261984/Catholic-church-to-clamp-down-on-religious-art-theft.html