Two paintings by Spanish great Salvador Dali feature in the collection of 125 works seized from mob businessman Gioacchino Campolo, dubbed the “King of Videopoker” after he built up a vast fortune by running tampered slot machines.
“Today we can say the state has won,” Eduardo Lamberti Castronuovo, culture and legality assessor in Reggio Calabria, told AFP.
“From shadow to light,” inaugurated on Saturday at the city's imposing Palace of Culture, a 1920s converted orphanage, features Dali's “Fuente de Vida” and “Giulietta e Romeo” as well as works by naivist artist Antonio Ligabue and Arte Povera painter Lucio Fontana.
The paintings were seized in 2010 from Campolo, who was accused of helping fund the powerful 'Ndrangheta organised crime group in his native Calabria and was found guilty in 2011 of criminal association, usury and extortion.
The 77-year old, who is wheelchair-bound, is serving his 16-year jail sentence under house arrest due to his age and health.
'Tears and blood'
“He had €320 million ($365 million) in assets. He owned houses in Paris, Rome and throughout Reggio Calabria,” Lamberti Castronuovo said.
The 'Ndrangheta – whose name comes from the Greek for courage – is described by Italian police as the most active, richest and most powerful crime syndicate in Europe.
With a turnover of billions of euros a year, it is particularly notorious for drug trafficking and corrupt construction contracts.
Campolo was the business frontman for the powerful De Stefano mafia family – several members of which featured on Italy's list of most-wanted fugitives – and he built up his collection as a way to launder the proceeds from his slot-machine empire.
Not all turned out to be good investments: 22 of the paintings were discovered to be forgeries.
But the “ethical value” of the paintings is greater than their economic worth, Lamberti Castronuovo said.
The haul was “taken from people who take everything from us. What we confiscate is not put under lock and key, as it was by them, but made available to people for the common good.
“That's what we call taking action against the mafia!” he said.
Reggio Calabria mayor Giuseppe Falcomata said the exhibition meant “giving back to the people works of art which are no longer the fruit of tears and blood, but are a collective patrimony”.
After decades of fighting Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Italian state has a large portfolio of confiscated assets, including some 3,000 businesses, 12,000 buildings and over €2 billion in frozen funds.
For the last decade or so Italy has been working to return the assets to the public arena though a “social re-use” programme.
The country's courts have been confiscating goods tainted by mafia association since 1982, under an anti-mafia law.
The law was named in part after the bill's author, Pio La Torre, who was assassinated before it could be voted in.
La Torre was gunned down by the deadly Corleonesi clan allegedly on the direct orders of infamous bosses “Toto” Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, dubbed “the tractor” for the way he mowed his victims down.
Seizing goods is one of the most powerful weapons used to prevent mobsters from continuing to run their businesses behind bars.
And it can bring great benefits to the rest of society, from farms and restaurants transformed into social co-operatives, to this show.
“In collecting these paintings, (Campolo) was working for us,” Lamberti Castronuovo said.