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Italy foils art thieves by swapping Brueghel painting for a fake

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Italy foils art thieves by swapping Brueghel painting for a fake
The Crucifixion by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, which is safe and sound despite an attempt to steal it.
10:37 CET+01:00
Thieves who stole a Flemish master's painting of the crucifixion from a church in northern Italy this week are in for a disappointment: police say they had secretly swapped the original for a fake.

The genuine Crucifixion, painted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in the 17th century and worth an estimated €3 million, remains safe and sound in Castelnuovo Magra, a small town in Liguria near Italy's north-west coast, despite an attempt to steal it on Wednesday morning.

Thieves used a hammer to break into the display case in the local church of Santa Maria Maddalena, making off with what they assumed to be the valuable artwork.

But unbeknownst to them, carabinieri had discreetly removed the original for safekeeping over a month ago after getting wind of a plot to steal it.


Santa Maria Maddalena, the church in Castelnuovo Magra where the painting is (usually) kept. Photo: Davide Papalini - CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

"Rumours began to circulate that someone could steal the work and the carabinieri decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some surveillance cameras," explained Mayor Daniele Montebello, who helped keep the subterfuge under wraps before and even after the heist.

He was quoted in the Italian press lamenting the presumed loss on Wednesday morning, telling reporters that the theft was "a hard blow for our community".

READ ALSO: Police back on the trail of ‘world's most wanted' stolen Caravaggio painting

But by that evening he dropped the pretence, thanking the police and churchgoers for helping to lay the trap: "Some members of the congregation noticed that the painting on display was not the original, but they didn't give away the secret," Montebello said.

Police are now looking for two men who were seen removing the fake painting and driving off with it in a Peugeot car, according to La Repubblica. They are believed to have stolen it on commission.


The town of Castelnuovo Magra in Liguria. Photo: Davide Papalini - CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

It's at least the third close call for The Crucifixion since it was donated to the church by a wealthy family just over a century ago. During World War Two it had to be hidden from Nazi soldiers, who were infamously prone to helping themselves to other people's cultural treasures; while art thieves actually managed to make off with the painting in 1981, before being tracked down and returned by police a few months later.

Painted in oil on five oak panels, the scene is a copy by Brueghel the Younger of one of his famous father's works, now lost. Art historians say he added his own distinct style and colour to the painting, which includes a mysterious fourth cross in the background behind the traditional three.

Italian police have long struggled to fight thefts from churches, which store valuable heritage but much harder to secure than museums. Some of the treasures stolen include a lost masterpiece by Caravaggio, taken from a church in Palermo 50 years ago.

In 2017, police recovered more than 100 artworks taken in 24 thefts from churches and other religious institutions in southern and central Italy, with a combined value of €7 million.

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