A story with a happy ending that began 20 years ago with the theft of a valuable painting

The Interpol database (ID-Art) has 6,684 works of art registered as stolen or missing in Italy. In the case of Spain, the number of pieces sought and captured rises to 727. Yesterday, at the Italian Embassy in Madrid, the National Police officially handed over to the Carabinieri two priceless objects recovered by the Spanish agents: a gilded wooden reliquary bust of Pope Saint Clement, from the 16th century, and an oil painting from the 17th century entitled Lunch. The emotional Italian ambassador, Riccardo Guariglia, recalled that the recovery was only possible “because of the close collaboration between both countries”, while the director general of the National Police, Francisco Pardo Piqueras, stressed that this cooperation extends both “in the fight against crime, as in the protection of cultural heritage”.

This story of a happy ending began 20 years ago when thieves stole from a private collection in Bologna the painting, dated 1600 and by an anonymous author, which represents three diners playing with a cat: an allegory about sin and temptations. The work was never heard of again, until Interpol located it two decades later in a Spanish auction house. Inquiries by the National Police Heritage Brigade led investigators to a company owned by three antique dealers who, in turn, had acquired it from a third party. The transaction had been carried out without export permits.

When Protestantism was already a reality in Europe, the Catholic Church reacted with the Counter-Reformation. A way to value their saints and, therefore, to gain ground in reformed estates, according to Roberto Alonso, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and specialized in Neapolitan art of the 16th and 17th centuries. In this way, he began a frantic career in the Catholic craft workshops to carve works of art so that all the temples would display their respective relics inside. So many were created that, if in principle these had to be made with noble materials such as stone or bronze, the artists had to reduce their expectations and manufacture them in wood, then painted or covered with gold or silver leaf. That is the case of Reliquary of Pope Saint Clement, which was exhibited in the church of the Gesu, in the Italian town of Lecce. Taking advantage of the solitude of places of worship during the covid pandemic, the work – part of a sculptural ensemble – disappeared.

It was on this occasion that the Historical Heritage Brigade of the National Police located this handmade jewel thanks to information from the Ministry of Culture and Sports: the reliquary was for sale in an antique shop in Madrid. The Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command was informed. The papal bust had been acquired at the Parma antiques fair by an antique dealer from Madrid’s El Rastro. “The European Union has very good things, but also the elimination of borders, and the trafficking of illegal works of art suffers in its own flesh,” says Roberto Alonso.

The reliquary of Pope Saint Clement, before its theft in the church of Gesú.
The reliquary of Pope Saint Clement, before its theft in the church of Gesú.

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At yesterday’s award ceremony, which had the motto “Art Returned”, the Spanish and Italian policemen wore their best clothes. The professional pride of both bodies was chewed. “To talk about cultural heritage is to talk about our identity and the origins that explain us. It is talking about discovering, in our diversity, what unites us as a country and as Europeans”, said the Commissioner General of the Judicial Police, Rafael Pérez Pérez. Roberto Riccardi, head of the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command, stressed: “Crime has no borders, the police shouldn’t have either.” The ambassador concluded the act by recalling “the fundamental role of cultural diplomacy between Italy and Spain, two countries characterized by a strong affinity, as well as by a common history that has always found in art and beauty a fertile and rich field of collaboration”.

Interpol has already removed these two pieces from the database, but has included others in recent days. In the case of Spain, a Incipit Liber, processionarius secundum consuetidinem ordinis, from 1526, a 121-page book that was printed in Alcalá de Henares. In the case of Italy, the Portrait of seated man, by the painter Johannes Stephan Van Calcar (1499-1546). Interpol sources recall that any information about these or other works of art is “completely confidential, not even the particular access data to remote police bases are recorded.” And the search continues, even after 20 years.

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