A small Italian church got the last laugh on a group of art thieves who stole a Flemish master’s painting of the crucifixion only to learn cops had swapped out the original for a fake after being tipped off that a heist was in the works.
Seventeenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s famous painting The Crucifixion was donated to the Santa Maria Maddalena church in the small Ligurian town of Castelnuovo Magra more than a century ago. Last month, the masterpiece was removed and a copy put up in its place to catch the would-be robbers.
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“Rumors were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras,” Mayor Daniele Montebello said Wednesday night. “I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn’t the original but kept up the secret.”
The Crucifixion is worth an estimated $3.3 million.
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The popular painting was donated to the church by a wealthy family and was hidden during World War II to prevent it from being stolen by German soldiers.
Thieves successfully swiped the painting once in 1981 but it was recovered a few months later.
Italy remains a magnet for art thieves. While the number of thefts in the country has dropped from 906 in 2011 to 449 in 2016, the European nation is still one of the biggest markets for stolen art due to the abundance of paintings, sculptures and drawing stashed there. According to The Guardian, almost half of the artefacts taken in 2016 had been kept in churches.
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Italian art police have distributed basic guidelines to churches on how to protect art which include getting volunteers to keep watch and installing surveillance systems.