On March 13th, thieves successfully stole a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger from a Santa Maria Maddalena church in the town of Castelnuovo Magra in northern Italy. The thieves entered the church around lunch time while it was empty and, using a hammer, smashed the painting’s protective glass case open. They then put the painting in a white Peugeot and took off attracting the attention of the locals who then called in the incident when they saw the door to the church was suspiciously wide open.
The painting in question, which is valued at over $3 million, is called The Crucifixion and dates back to the 17th century. Unfortunately for the thieves, though, the painting they stole was a copy of the original worth nothing.
The switch happened a few weeks ago when Italy’s military police, the carabinieri, caught wind of rumours that the painting was the target of an upcoming heist. Unbeknownst to anyone other than police, Santa Maria Maddalena’s priest, and the local mayor, the carabinieri swapped out the paintings following the tip they received and installed video cameras around the church. They then stored the real painting by Brueghel in a secure location.
After the robbery, the carabinieri kept up appearances that the painting was stolen until it was leaked to the press later that evening. ‘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,’ said Daniele Montebello, the mayor of Castelnuovo Magra. ‘I don’t want to even think about the consequences had they not switched the paintings.’ The priest, Reverend Alessandro Chiantaretto, believes that the thieves must have watched his habits to know when he was out of the church to best coordinate their heist. It is unknown if any suspects have been caught but Montebello believes it is ‘only a matter of time.’ Until they’re caught, though, the painting, which is a prized possession of the Italian town, will remain in safekeeping.
The Flemish Master painted the work around 1617 and was a copy of a similar painting painted by his father, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which is now lost. Covering five oak panels, the artwork bears a striking resemblance to another painting by the same name by Brueghel the Younger that is a part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection. Donated to the church by a local wealthy family, this isn’t the first time the painting has disappeared. In 1981, The Crucifixion was stolen but police found the painting months after the heist.
‘[The thieves] discover that police can be smart, and also the people of the community and the priest can be smart to avoid such things,’ Marchese said. ‘So, I hope this is going to be a lesson.’ Hopefully, this is the last time thieves try their luck with the painting.