Theft to order, a shady antiquarian, a drug dealer and a Russian with a penchant for gold. This is the apparent recipe for the dramatic 2013 Easter weekend jewelry heist at Rome's Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia.
In a press conference in Rome today, officers from Italy's art police squad, the Nucleo Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, the Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, and Giancarlo Capaldo and Tiziana Cugini attorney's with the Procura della Repubblica di Roma who oversee crimes against the country's cultural heritage, announced the recovery of 23 of the 27 works of gold stolen from the Rome museum's Castellani collection between March 30 and April 1, 2013.
Castellani was the first 19th-century Rome goldsmith to create jewelry pieces closely modelled closely on the Etruscan, classical Italian and Greek prototypes. While many outside of Italy are not familiar with the jewelry magnate, the family's finest works are displayed in many museums around the world including at the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée des Arts.
At the time of the 2013 theft, Italian investigators were criticised for remaining tight-lipped about what had been stolen. Unlike in other museums thefts, the jewelry's value was never publicly disclosed and no photos from the Villa Giulia's inventory collection system were circulated to the public. Even the museum’s CCTV footage remained a close door secret.
When the theft was made public, many speculated that in Italy's economic recession, the laborously hand-creafted jewelry would likely be dismantled, its accompanying precious and semi-precious stones resold and the gold then melted down and reused.
Arriving around midnight, the thieves had announced their presence by dramatically launching a smoke grenade into the museum's courtyard, temporarily diverting the attention of the night watchman. This bought the thieves the precious seconds needed to enter the museum and disable the guards.
Bypassing many of Villa Giulia’s costlier masterpieces, the robbers then climbed the stairs to the first floor rooms, an area of the museum which houses the objects that make up the vast 6000-piece Castellani collection.
Stopping in Room 20, the Sala degli Ori, the thieves smashed two of four double collection display cabinets with an axe, which unintentionally engaged a museum security alarm cutting short the criminal's jewelry shopping. Even with such limited time, the thieves still managed to bag what has now been confirmed to be three million euros worth of exquisite pendants, earrings, and brooches enriched with precious and semi precious stones, coins or other ancient historic elements.
While the museum getaway went off without a hitch for the thieves, the days following it did not.
Initial investigations revealed that a wealthy Russian citizen, with a passion for Rome’s Castellani-styled jewellery had expressed her interest to a local antiquarian who had shown her reproductions. But the buyer wasn’t interested. She wanted original items, not next-generation replicas. This antiquarian is believed to be the main receiver of the jewelry stolen from the museum.
Shortly thereafter the Russian woman was identified in Fiumicino before boarding a flight back to San Petersburg. Travelling with her was the daughter of the antiquarian. Inside her bag, authorities found a catalog for the Castellani collection and images taken using a smart phone camera showing the Villa Giulia's galleries and surveillance equipment mounted on the gallery's ceiling.
Having lost their chance to sell to the Russian, the gang were forced to begin looking for local buyers.
Three years of patient investigations, coupled with hundreds of wiretaps and dozens of searches, led the Italian authorities to a band of six individuals, several from the Pontine Marches, an area south east of Rome near Sabaudia. Without their rich foreign jewelry lover, the group had begun searching for local buyers and a date had been set to sell some of the pieces.
The location for a forthcoming clandestine sale was a remote bar in Rome's periphery on via Portense. It is here that law enforcement swooped in to make arrests. As offices attempted to question the pair of fences, the two bolted from the scene in an automobile, attempting to pitch the envelope containing 7 pieces of the Castallani jewelry out the auto's window while in route. Caught almost immediately, the two fences and another four individuals have been implicated, two of whom have also been charged with illegal possession of a 357 magnum and drug distribution.
In one singular museum theft case, we have organised crime, drug dealing, dirty dealers and a Russian Mrs. Dr. No. Sometimes you can't make this stuff up.
By: Lynda Albertson