March 31, 2013

Theft at Villa Giulia, Rome: Another European Museum Hit by Thieves

by Lynda Albertson, CEO, Association of Research into Crimes against Art

ROME - In the last thirteen months several museums in Europe have been hit with dramatic thefts.

In February 2012, two men stormed the Archeological Museum of Olympia in the early morning and tied up a female guard. Wielding hammers, the robbers proceeded to smash five reinforced glass display cases, stuffing 68 pottery and bronze artifacts into their bags before making a hasty escape. 

In a less violent robbery, thieves walked into the Kunsthal in Rotterdam at 3 am on October 16, 2012 and stole seven paintings from the Triton Foundation, a private foundation of the family of the late Willem Cordia. Inside the museum for less than two minutes, the thieves cherry-picked valuable art works by Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, Matisse and Lucian Freud, packing them into rucksacks before exiting the same way they came in. 

In January goal-oriented burglars struck an art museum in Bergen, Norway for the second time in less than three years. Using high-beam headlights and crowbars, two thieves smashed display cases and stole 23 rare Chinese artifacts in just over ninety seconds.

This past weekend, over the Easter holidays, Rome’s Villa Giulia joined the list. 

Arriving around midnight, the thieves announced their presence by dramatically launching a smoke grenade. This effectively occupied the attention of the night watchmen and bought the thieves the precious seconds needed to climb a garden wall and break into the museum.  It also provided them with a thick cover to obscure their movements on the museum’s close-circuit cameras. 

While the guards investigated the smoke and notified the police of the evening's irregularity, the criminals began making their way through the museum.  Bypassing many of Villa Giulia’s costlier masterpieces, the robbers climbed the stairs to the first floor rooms that house the objects that make up the vast 6000-piece Castellani collection.

Stopping in Room 20, the Sala degli Ori, the thieves smashed two of the four double collection display cabinets, setting off the museum’s alarm and grabbing an as yet, unnamed number of jewelry pieces before making their escape unseen.

If their selection was random or purposeful has not been indicated by the Italian investigators.  What has been said is that the shattered display cases housed 19th century Castellani jewelry reproductions based on Etruscan designs while the collection cases facing and alongside those hit containing original Etruscan pieces were left untouched.

Anyone familiar with ancient jewelry making techniques knows that the loss of these antique reproductions is likely to be quite significant. In December of 2006 Sotheby's sold a Castellani Egyptian-revival gold, scarab and micromosaic necklace with matching brooch to a private collector for $475,200. Nine other Castellani pieces sold in that same sale for six figures a piece.

To create his Etruscan replicas, Alessandro Castellani studied original Etruscan artifacts in great detail to try to unravel their method of fabrication. Experimenting with various granulation techniques, he hand-applied minute gold grain onto high-karat gold surfaces producing labor intensive and intricate gold baubles that were as exquisite as their ancient counterparts.

The finest examples of jewelry in this style were produced between the eighth and second centuries, B.C.E. Even with modern tools and knowledge, few goldsmiths today have sufficient skill to compete with either the Castellani jewelers or the original Etruscan masters of the craft.  The jewelry pieces in the Villa Giulia collection were created in a time when human hands were more abundant that the precious metals needed to produce an item and many of the collection’s signature pieces required hundreds of hours of painstaking workmanship.

As back history to the stolen pieces, Fortunato Castellani, opened his family’s jewelry business on the Via del Corso in Rome in 1814 growing the family enterprise into a goldsmith dynasty. Alongside its founder, three generations of Castellani family members and jewelry artisans based their reputations on creating what they called “Italian archaeological jewelry,” inspired by the precious Etruscan, Roman, Greek, and Byzantine antiquities being excavated at the time. 

Characterised by its thoughtfully worked gold, many Castellani revival pieces utilise labor-intensive micro mosaic insets, or were ornately paved with cameos or semi-precious stones.  The costliest pieces were purchased by well-heeled clientele, some of whom included Napoleon III; Prince Albert; Queen Victoria's daughter, Empress Frederick of Prussia; Queen Maria Pia of Savoy; and Robert and Elizabeth Browning, who even wrote a poem about one of their rings.

For now, the authorities at the Villa Giulia and the Carabinieri TPC are remaining mum publicly as to which 19th century pieces were taken, their value and what, if anything, the museum’s closed circuit surveillance tapes have revealed in terms of clues.

What we do know is that this not the first time that a burglar has made use of a cinema-worthy smokescreen to foil security cameras or to carry out a brazen museum theft on a holiday. 

In 1999 Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise was stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England during New Year celebrations.  The bandit broke through a skylight, rappelled down a rope ladder into a gallery and blinded security cameras with a smoke bomb before making off with the £3m painting.

A smoke bomb was also detonated inside the Ukraine's Lvov Picture Gallery in 1992 during a noon-day heist.   In this violent robbery, two bandits stole three 19th century paintings and shot two museum employees - one a manager and the other a section manager - who tried to prevent their escape.

What will become of the pieces stolen from the Villa Giulia collection is subject to speculation, as is the rationale behind most modern museum thefts.  Some here in Rome think that the recent UK and European robberies highlight that austerity measures and the recession have created a financial climate that on surface value makes museum collections appealing targets.

What happens after, when the high profile goods are difficult to sell, remains to be seen.


Perhaps the Carabinieri were staying "mum" about the market value of Castellani jewellery for a good reason but if the thieves were ignorant of the value of the pieces they stole they aren't now. Either there is a rationale behind not revealing open market values or there isn't. Which is it?

The question you pose is a thought-provoking one Tom and it would be nice to have some serious scholarship on the ramifications, if any, when art value figures are thrown out there in journalistic pieces after a theft. I don’t have an immediate answer in the larger sense of what people in the field should or shouldn’t be providing regarding an object’s potential value, but I can speak to my own personal intent and rationale in listing financial numbers in this singular article.

I made mention of the Castellani jewelry’s general value because it is commonplace. Given the techniques used by this jewelry dynasty and its impact on jewelry design, there are numerous books available that list pieces, techniques, values, buyers etc. So in theory, one can assume that if the thief stole the pieces in complete ignorance of their intrinsic value (and I am not claiming they did) they need only pass by a museum book store (V & A has them, as does the MOMA, Oxford and perhaps even the Villa Giulia) and thumb through the books on the subject there, or if they wanted to be more discreet they could visit their public library or order them online via Amazon.

In addition to that, in a few simple clicks any other journalist or thief can, as easily as I, pull up the PDF of the Sotheby sale records, which is where I found the bid/final sale prices and piece descriptions I referred to in my article. As we say in Italy, Io non ha scoperta dell'acqua calda (I didn’t discover hot water).

I don’t mind going on the record though as saying that I am less concerned about insurance companies being held to higher ransoms because of any information I might have inadvertently regarding the Villa Giulia theft than I am about them doing the quick and dirty and melting down the objects down for their gold.

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