Showing posts with label Caravaggio. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caravaggio. Show all posts

July 7, 2015

The Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily: Where a stolen Caravaggio Nativity once hung above the altar


Street entrance to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo
by Judge Arthur Tompkins

This post continues last week's post "Sicily, Palermo, Cicero, and a missing Caravaggio".

I found it.

Not, sadly, Caravaggio's Nativity. But the stunning Oratorio where it should hang.

The Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, is at Via Immacolatella, 3, next door to a larger church dedicated to Saint Francis, which overlooks a quiet piazza. It's a little tricky to find, a few streets back on the south side of Via Vittorio Emanuele, on the seaward side of both the main north-south roads, Via Marqueda and Via Roma, in the Old Town.

Just in case you're interested, the easiest route is to turn off Via Vittorio Emanuele into Via Alessandro Paternostro, then walk down this gently curving street until it opens into the small piazza. The Chiesa San Francesco is on your left, across the piazza, and the entrance to Via Immacolatella is in the far left corner: it heads back towards Via Vittorio Emanuele. You'll most likely need to keep your map close at hand as you untangle the labyrinth to find the front entrance.

Leafy courtyard of the Oratorio of San Lorenzo
Inside the entrance and up a few steps is a small leafy courtyard. You pay the modest entrance fee on the left (hang on to your ticket - it will get you free or reduced entrance to a list of other places, including the sombre and austere 12th century church of San Cataldo, with its distinctive three cupolas, just behind Piazza Pretoria) and then the door to the Oratorio is diagonally across the courtyard, in the far corner nearest the street.

Inside a vibrant rococo feast of Giacomo Serpotta baroque stucco work greets you, showing various scenes from the life of St Lawrence, culminating in his martyrdom atop a fiery brazier on the rear wall.

The copy of the stolen Caravaggio painting of the Nativity
But opposite that, in pride of place above the altar, hangs a full size replica of the stolen painting. Even as a copy, it dominates the rectangular room, the only break in the profusion of white and gilded stucco-work.

It remains a silent witness to a now decades-old theft, with little or no hope for the recovery of an original most likely now gone for ever.

Sources for further reading on the theft of Palermo's Caravaggio Nativity can be found here.

July 3, 2015

Further Information about Palermo's stolen Caravaggio Nativity painting

Caravaggio, "Nativity with Saint Lawrence
and Saint Francis"
For further reading on the ARCA Blog about Caravaggio's "Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis" stolen from a church in Palermo in 1969:

Judith Harris, "Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity", December 18, 2009;

Catherine Schofield Sezgin, "More confirmation of old news? Pietro Grasso, head of the anti-Mafia crime unit, confirms in May that Caravaggio's Nativity of Palermo eaten by pigs", May 10, 2012;

Sezgin, "Revisiting books: Peter Watson on the Palermo Nativity in the 1984 book The Caravaggio Conspiracy", May 14, 2012;

Sezgin, "Revisiting books: Watson's The Caravaggio Conspiracy and the motive for stealing the Palermo Nativity",  May 16, 2012;

Sezgin, "Revisiting books: An Earthquake Shatters Expectations in The Caravaggio Conspiracy", May 18, 2012;

Laura Fandino, "ARCA 2013 Conference: James Moore on the stolen Palermo Nativity by Caravaggio ...", August 25, 2013;

In regards to a theft of another Caravaggio painting:

Sezgin, "Rev. Dr. Marius Zerafa Spoke on "The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio's "St. Jerome Writing", Co-Cathedral of St. John" at ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference" July 10, 2014;

Sezgin, "Father Zerafa's recommended reading on Caravaggio's Stolen Palermo Nativity -- and his memory of visiting the painting in the S Lorenzo Chapel",  July 17, 2014.

July 2, 2015

Sicily, Palermo, Cicero, and a missing Caravaggio ...

Cicero's bust in the Musei Capitolini
 ["Cicero - Musei Capitolini"
 by Glauco92 - Own work.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
 via Wikimedia Commons].jpg
by Judge Arthur Tompkins

This year's visit to Ameliai, Umbria, for ARCA's Art Crime and Cultural Heritage course saw a visit, during a break in teaching duties, to Sicily. Apart from the obvious reasons to visit (I'd never been before, and it being a slightly mythical, Godfather-producing place, and all) two art crime-related reasons spurred my presence in the centuries old, culturally diverse, vibrant and slightly shambolic ancient metropolis. 

The first was that about 20 centuries ago, a Roman magistrate named Gaius Verres came to Palermo as governor. During an energetically corrupt, roughly two-year tenure, he managed to plunder and loot and steal his way through whole swathes of Sicilian culture and art and heritage.  

"Michelangelo Caravaggio, Nativity with
 San Francesco and San Lorenzo"

Fated ever to be the long suffering populace (in the coming centuries, they were to be ruled by - not necessary in this order, or at least always not in a lineally ordered sequence - the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Angevins and the Aragonese, the Bourbons, the Savoys, and finally, the Italians), Verres' larceny proved too much even for the stoical Sicilians. They hired a young and ambitious lawyer in Rome, one Marcus Tullius Cicero, to prosecute the erstwhile governor. And prosecute him Cicero did, vigorously and famously, in the Senate, by way of a series of speeches later known to history collectively as the Verrines. Such was the power of his prosecutorial oratory, after the first speech was delivered to a likely enthusiastic Roman crowd and Senate, Verres fled into exile. He never returned to Rome.

Cicero's Verrines have echoed down the centuries, as exemplars of oratory, of writing, of prosecutorial precedent and, coincidentally, of informative travel-writing. Conceptually, in part they embody and express a fundamental idea that underpins so much of our cultural heritage protection thinking now, the idea that art and culture and heritage belongs not just to the immediate possessor or the country in which accidental history consigns it, but to all humankind.

So I wanted to walk the same ground as had the notorious Gaius Verres, and which had occasioned Cicero's oratory.

Via Vittoria Emanuele, Palermo, Sicily [Arthur Tompkins].jpg
The second reason is that Palermo is the site of one of the great unsolved art crimes. In 1609 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was on the run from the authorities in Rome. He had been Naples and in Malta, but in late 1608 he had washed up in Sicily. According to one account, he spent a year here, "sleeping fitfully with a dagger by his side, and painting several late [although I guess he would probably have thought of them as early to mid career] masterpieces".

One of them was the large and dramatic Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco. For about 350 years the canvas hung undisturbed above the altar in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, just off the main Via Vittorio Emanuele in downtown Palermo.

Then in October 1969 it was stolen.  It has never been seen since. Varying accounts have it still in hiding somewhere, burnt, rotted, eaten by rats, or indeed fed to swine (by swine, one might think ...).

I wanted to see where it should still be.

July 17, 2014

Father Zerafa's recommended reading on Caravaggio's Stolen Palermo Nativity -- and his memory of visiting the painting in the S Lorenzo Chapel

Father Zerafa receiving an award in
the S Lorenzo chapel in Palermo
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

After downloading Daniel Silva's recent mystery which involves a fictional attempt to recover Caravaggio's Palermo Nativity, I emailed Father Marius Zerafa to ask him if he'd be reading Silva's thriller. With his permission, I am reprinting his response:
Unfortunately, I have not read the book you mentioned. A good book I would suggest is Peter Watson's The Caravaggio Conspiracy. This is not fiction. It is the story of a serious journalist who tries to contact the Mafia about the Palermo Caravaggio. At one time he is even told the Mafia had 'another Caravaggio in mind' which could easily have been our 'St Jerome'. 
While looking for the Palermo Caravaggio he discovers a number of paintings, stolen and exported illegally. A very interesting book. 'A must' for anyone interested in art thefts. 
As regards my personal interest in the Palermo Caravaggio, I can say that I had seen the original 'Nativity'. This was about 50 years ago and I had gone to Palermo just to see it. The S Lorenzo chapel was not safe at all. I remember knocking at a house next to the chapel and an old lady came and opened the chapel. I remember I was very impressed by the style of the painting (rather different from the other Sicilian works) and also by the strong contrast between the white Serpotta stuccoes and the dark Caravaggio painting. 
Father Zerafa and the S Lorenzo association
Since then I've been to Palermo practically every year. There is an Association, run by a very dedicated young man. They run the S Lorenzo chapel and they organize lectures, etc., associated with The Nativity. They even encourage artists to paint their own versions of the Nativity. I have been asked a number of times to lecture there, they have even awarded me their medal. 
I am sending you a couple of photos you may find of some interest. 
I did find the photos interesting and have included them here, then I ordered Watson's The Caravaggio Conspiracy from an independent bookstore (it's also available in many public libraries). And here is the December 2013 article published by BBC written by Alastair Cooke, the art critic for The Daily Telegraph on the Palermo Nativity. And here's a 2005 article by Peter Robb in The Telegraph, "Will we ever see it again?" which offers a compelling narrative on the Palermo Nativity theft.

And for Gabriel Allon fans, here's a link to Daniel Silva promoting his book on The Today Show.

July 12, 2014

Daniel Silva's new fictional book "The Heist" begins with a promise to reveal the fate of Caravaggio's "The Nativity" stolen in 1969 from a church in Palermo

Caravaggio's Nativity (Palermo)
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Daniel Silva, author of 14 books featuring the art restorer-Israeili assassin Gabriel Alon, features the theft of Caravaggio's Nativity in his new book, The Heist, to be published July 15. The book begins with:
On October 18, 1969, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence vanished from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. The Nativity, as it is commonly known, is one of Caravaggio’s last great masterworks, painted in 1609 while he was a fugitive from justice, wanted by papal authorities in Rome for killing a man during a swordfight. For more than four decades, the altarpiece has been the most sought-after stolen painting in the world, and yet its exact whereabouts, even its fate, have remained a mystery. Until now…
In 2009, Judith Harris wrote for the ARCABlog about "breaking news" on the stolen Caravaggio Palmero Nativity that the mafia, who allegedly had stolen the painting, had destroyed the painting through neglect. Another source in 2012 also claimed that the painting had been eaten by pigs.

British author Peter Watson wrote in The Caravaggio Conspiracy that if it weren't for an earthquake he might have been able to recover Caravaggio's Nativity in 1980. Here's a link to Watson's description of Italy's famous art investigator, Rodolfo Siviero.

James Moore, a retired trial lawyer and a student of art history, presented on the theft of Caravaggio's The Nativity from Palermo at the 2013 ARCA Conference in Amelia.

Daniel Silva's 2009 book, The Defector, featured a bakery in Amelia (the Umbrian town north of Rome which hosts ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Preservation).

Tanya Lervik, an ARCA Alum, listened to Daniel Silva speak in Washington D.C. last year on his last Gabriel Allon book, The English Girl.

July 11, 2014

Friday, July 11, 2014 - , No comments

Caravaggio to be interned in memorial park on July 18 in Tuscany; however, do the remains found four years ago belong to the artist?

Caravaggio's Medusa (oil on wood covered
with  canvas) at the Uffizi at least since 1631
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Chiara Longo and Gareth Harris report for The Art Newspaper in "Caravaggio to be buried in Tuscan Memorial Park" that the reputed remains of the 16th century artist found in a church four years ago will be interned on his birthday (July 18) at the cost of €65,000:
Caravaggio's remains will be housed under a monumental arch created by the sculptor Giuseppe Conte, which will be topped with a ceramic basket of fruits inspired by Caravaggio's famous still-lifes. The park will also include colourful and fragrant Mediterranean plants such as jasmine, lavender and rosemary.
Here's a link to information about Caravaggio the artist. And here in 2010 is an article ("Unearthing doubts about Caravaggio's remains") by Elizabetta Provoledo in The New York Times which discusses the authenticity of the claim.

July 10, 2014

Rev. Dr. Marius Zerafa Spoke on "The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio’s “St. Jerome Writing”, Co-Cathedral of St. John" at ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference

Father Marius Zerafa in Amelia before the conference
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Amelia, Umbria -- The Reverend Dr. Marius Zerafa spoke on “The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio’s St. Jerome Writing from the Co-Cathedral of St. John” at ARCA’s Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference on June 28. Father Zerafa, a Dominican priest and the former Curator and Director of the Malta Museums, spent almost a year negotiating with the thieves to recover the painting taken on New Year's Eve in 1984.

“At times it was easier to deal with the Mafia, than with Ministers and Monsignori …” Father Zerafa said, quoting himself from his book, “Caravaggio – Diaries (Transcribed and edited by Catherine Sinclair Galea, Grimand Company Limited, Malta, 2004).

Father Zerafa and the rescued work
Father Zerafa said that the taped ransom demand was in Maltese and the voice threatened to blow something up: “It was quite frightening.” At first, he told the audience, he did not involve the police but recorded his conversations with the mafia. They sent him five pieces of the painting which had a special kind of relining and a photograph of a coffee pot on top of the painting. After eight months of delaying tactics, Father Zerafa said he informed the police and the phone calls were traced to a show factory. "The painting had gone to Italy, then they brought it back once we told them that we had the money," Father Zerafa said. It was damaged and in need of restoration so he arranged a military plane to take the painting to Rome for repairs. After it was exhibited in Rome, the painting was returned to Malta and Father Zerafa, an admirer of Caravaggio, painted a copy of it.

Father Zerafa with his version of Caravaggio's St. Jerome
Fr. Marius J. Zerafa was born in Vittoriosa, Malta, on 13th October 1929, the son of Joseph Zerafa M.B.E and Maria (nee Boffa), and nephew of Sir Paul Boffa Kt., O.B.E., M.D., Prime Minister of Malta. He started education at the Government Primary School till Class III, when, at the age of 9, he entered the Malta Lyceum. With the encouragement of Dun Gorg Preca he joined the Dominican Order in 1945. He spent three years at the Dominican House of Studies in Rabat and was then sent to “Hawkesyard”, Staffordshire, and later to “Blackfriars”, Oxford (1948-1952). He went to Rome (1952-54) where he obtained his S.Th.B. and Dip.Sc.Soc. He returned to Rome for another two years and obtained his Lectorate and Licentiate in Sacred Theology and a Doctorate in Social Sciences. He also attended the State University in Rome and obtained a Diploma in Art History. Later he also obtained a B.A. Hons. Degree in Art History from the University of London. He also followed courses at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole de Louvre, Paris, (1963 and 1966); at the University of Florence (1965 and 1968); at the Brera, Milan, and at the Fondazione Cini, Venice, (1965). Working on a thesis for the Degree of D.Litt. at Florence University.

Father Zerafa with his copy of the Angelico 'Annunciation'
In 1962 he was elected Associate of the Royal Historical Society, London. He is a member of the Accademia Tiberina and was awarded the French Decoration “Chevalier dans l`Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”, the Russian “Order of Lomonosov” “Insignia of Merit” and the “Union Federation Medal” by the Russian Parliament, and the Florence “Beato Angelico” Medal. He has recently been awarded the Gold Medal and Dipoma by the Malta Society of Arts. He is also Knight of Grace, O.S.J.

Fr Zerafa was awarded Art Scholarships by the Italian Government on the occasion of Malta`s Independence and again in 1968. He visited museums in the United States on an International Visitors Program; worked at the Louvre, Paris, on a Council of Europe Fellowship; had a British Council Grant in 1967 and a German Government Bursary sponsored by Inter Nationes. He was also invited to the Soviet Union as Co-Founder of the Maltese-Soviet Friendship Society.

Fr Zerafa was Secretary and Senior History and Literature Master at St Albert`s College, Valletta, (1954-62); Professor of Social Philosophy and Sacred Art at the Dominican House of Studies, Rabat; Lecturer in Sociology in the Pastoral Course for the Clergy; Examiner in Sociology at the University of Malta; Lecturer in History and Appreciation of Art at the Malta School of Art; Lecturer in Sacred Art at the Major Seminary; at I.N.S.E.R.M.; Lecturer in Art Appreciation at St Edward`s College; Also taught English Literature and Art History at St Teresa monastery, Cospicua. He also lectured regularly, mainly on Art, at the British Council Centre, the Italian Istituto di Cultura, the Alliance Francaise and other cultural centres. For many years he was sub-editor of “Scientia” and Archivist of the Maltese Dominican Province. While studying in Florence, he was encouraged by Prof G LaPira, ex mayor of the City, to set up an Art Centre at S Marco, but had to return to Malta for family reasons.

Fr Zerafa joined the Museums Department in 1970 as Assistant Curator of Fine Arts and was responsible for the setting up of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta and the Museum of Contemporary Art at St Julian`s. He became Curator of Fine Arts in 1975 and Director of Museums in 1981. He was responsible for the opening of a number of museums in Malta and Gozo. During this period he was involved in the recovery of the painting “St Jerome” by Caravaggio after eight months` personal contact with the thieves.

Fr Zerafa has been invited to lecture at the Smithsonian, Washington; at Fordham University, New York; at the American University, Rome; at the Dominican Curia Generalizia, Rome; at Aspen Museum, Colorado; at the Moscow State University; at the Academy for Contemporary Art, Moscow; at the Academy for Design, Togliattigrad; at the Preti Museum, Taverna; at Budapest Museum, etc. He has taken part in International conferences in Quebec, Tunis, etc and has helped organize art exhibitions in London, Paris, Moscow, Palermo, etc.

He was Chairman of Government and other committees and until his recent resignation was Chairman of the Archdiocesan Commission for Sacred Art. He is a member of the Dominican Commission for Preaching through Art. He is also a member of the Penitentiary at S Maria Maggiore, Rome. Fr Zerafa retired from the Museums Department at the age of 61. He is now lecturer in Sacred Art at the Angelicum University, Rome. He is also “Aquinas Visiting Scholar” at Toronto University, Canada. He lectures at Cultural centres in Malta, and often leads groups of students on cultural tours abroad. He has restored works by Mattia Preti, Favray, and other Masters.

His own paintings and sculptures are to be found in churches and collections in Malta and abroad. An exhibition of his works and projects was held at Gallery G in December 2007.

Publications: “Developments in the doctrine of private property” (Rome, 1945); “The Genesis of Marx`s realist interpretation of History” (Rome, 1962); “Caravaggio Diaries” (Malta, 2004) [Being translated into Italian and Russian]; “Memories” (In preparation). Contributions to the Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Art, Florence: to Thieme Becker, Berlin: and other publications. Recreations: The Arts, reading, travelling. Sports: Walking, Canoeing, Judo.

June 19, 2014

Panel on "The Vulnerabilities of Sacred Art In Situ: Yesterday and Still Today" for ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference

The panel on "The Vulnerabilities of Sacred Art in Situ" will highlight these issues:

The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio’s “St. Jerome Writing”, Co-Cathedral of St. John
Rev. Dr. Marius Zerafa, O.P. S.T.L., Lect. Th., A.R. Hist. S., Dr. Sc.Soc Founder of the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, Malta Former Curator and Director of the Malta Museums

Fighting the Thieves in Italian Churches
Judith Harris, Journalist (ARTnews; www.i-italy.org) Author, Pompeii Awakened, The Monster in the Closet

Evacuate the objects from vulnerable religious sites? No, protect them in situ!
Stéphane Théfo, Police Officer/Project Manager, INTERPOL Office of Legal Affairs

You may read more about the conference to be held June 27-29 in Amelia here.

June 17, 2014

History of Art Crime: Fabio Isman's 1992 reporting of the discovery of Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ" in Dublin

The National Gallery of Ireland's "The Taking of Christ"
Caravaggio, 1602
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece (Random House, New York, 2005) -- includes the story of how Fabio Isman, an Italian journalist who regularly attends ARCA's Art Crime Conference in Amelia (and a key advisor to ARCA), broke the news that a restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, Sergio Benedetti, had found Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ" (1602) at the residence of the Society of Jesus in Dublin.

Harr recounts how in 1992, Isman, an investigative journalist with Rome's daily newspaper Il Messaggero, heard from scholar Sir Denis Mahon that another Caravaggio masterpiece had been found. Mahon would did not specify the work or the location, but Isman persisted in ferreting out the information by calling 'one Caravaggio scholar after another' and chancing upon 'a Caravaggio show with no Caravaggios except for The Supper at Emmaus, which Dublin had somehow managed to get on loan from London.'

This book describes how scholars hunt for authenticity through archives and publications, the differences between record keeping in Britain and Italy, and the competition amongst researchers. A perfect warmup to ARCA's Conference June 27-29 in Amelia.

August 25, 2013

ARCA 2013 Conference: James Moore on the stolen Palermo Nativity by Caravaggio; James Bond on the book theft from the Biltmore House; and Judith Harris on the private collecting appetite for looted antiquities

James "Alex" Bond (left), Rene Du Terroil (rear),
 Judith Harris (center), and James Moore (right)
by Laura Fandino, ARCA Intern
In the second panel of ARCA’s  5th conference, presenters James Moore and James "Alex" Bond walked us through two events that made their way into the art crime world: The mysterious theft of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence, and  the successful recovery of 90 books from the Biltmore’s House in Ashville, North Carolina. Following their presentations and discussions, journalist Judith Harris spoke on the continuing of private collecting of illicit art and archaeology, despite - and in part consequent to - today's more rigorous policies of provenance in acquisitions at auctions and by museums. The panel was moderated by Rene M. du Terroil who currently directs the internationalization initiative for the Italian and Spanish campuses of the Instituto Europeo di Design (IED).
James Moore opened up the panel with an illustrated discussion in which he narrated the events which led to the second most famous theft in the history of art crime, the theft of The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence in 1969 in Palermo, Sicily. He began his presentation speaking about Caravaggio, the artist who gave life to the stunning painting of the Nativity. Caravaggio is a well-known Italian artist who at very early age managed to achieve artistic success and fame. At the age of twenty Caravaggio began a career as an artist and then went on to produce many now-famous masterpieces.
Caravaggio’s successful artistic career, emphasized Moore, was the product of his refusal to follow the conventional artistic styles of the time, focusing rather on realistic, naturalistic and symbolist detail condensed into the most vivid biblical scenes.  His artistic fame, regrettably, was always accompanied by his “irascibility and an unpredictable and violent temper,” which eventually led to a homicide in Rome for which he was found guilty. Caravaggio escaped gaol, however, and fled to Naples, Malta and Sicily.  In 1609, while he was in Sicily he painted the Saint Lawrence Nativity for the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo.

The theft of the Nativity took place in October 1969. On the day of the heist, the thieves entered the oratory through what Moore called a “poorly locked side door” and then cut the painting out of its frame.  After 44 years of waiting for the return of one of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces, Moore wondered, “Is there any hope that the painting will be found?” Sadly, none of explanations for the crime have produced any significant information on the whereabouts of the painting that today is valued at more than $20 million, yet Moore remains hopeful as he invites us to recall the recovery of The Taking of Christ, another of Caravaggio’s master works, after 100 years of absence.

In the presentation, "Heritage Collecting: Image, Passion and the Law,"  Journalist Judith Harris described the act of collecting as an “innately human passion” initially performed as a  “sport of kings,” whose prestige later placed it on the agenda of merchants and bankers, among others. Such activity, say sociologists who have analyzed the passion for collecting, is shaped by the surrounding cultural processes, which increase the collectors' desire for the halo prestige which ownership brings.
The theft oft Bellini's 15th C. Madonna with Child  in 1993,  the purchase of important Italian antiquities by an unknown New York collector, and the recent mysterious discovery near Rome of an ancient Egyptian sphinx in an abandoned greenhouse, ready for shipment, exemplify the essential but problematic question of “Who is buying it?” According to Harris, the dark side of collecting is that the passion of the private collector continues to foster looting despite the security measures of museums and auction houses.

According to experts in the field, stated Harris, this continuing illegal traffic in antiquities for private collections reflects in part the lack of a census of minor pieces of art, including in many public collections. In addition, the mediocre and rather incomplete inventories of many libraries and public museum storage areas in Italy have contributed to the disappearance of valuable works. The Bibliotecadei Girolamini, an important library in Naples, was looted of some 4,000 books; its director is blamed for the theft. Altogether, circa 1,500 books - some dating from the Middle Ages - were sold or given to private collectors. Among them was an Italian politician, Marcello Dell’Utri.  

Finally, Harris directed us towards the Art Collecting Legal Handbook, a compendium of comparative legislation on collecting in twenty-eight different countries. Particularly interesting are the Handbook's comparisons of legal norms for “due diligence.” Authors Bruno Boesch and Massimo Sterpi underscore the importance of this today: “Collectors, private and public, need to know where they stand in law... Private collectors need to grapple with the complexity of the eventual transfer of collections of far greater financial value than ever before.”

April 13, 2013

Francisco Goya's 1978 "Witches in Air" is subject of auction house theft in Danny Boyle's fictional film "Trance"

Francisco Goya's Witches in Air, 1798
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

In Danny Boyle's fictional movie, Trance, Francisco Goya's $25 million painting is stolen during an auction in a choreographed heist. One of the thieves, Simon (James McAvoy), works at the auction house. Simon betrays his accomplices before a bump on his head precedes a case of amnesia. Rosario Dawson is the hypnotherapist and Vincent Cassel (who played an art thief in Oceans 13) is the criminal boss applying the pressure on the bewildered lad with the big blue eyes and Scottish brogue to recall where he hid the stolen painting.

In reality, Goya's Witches in Air is owned by the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. The 1798 oil painting is not on display:

Three bare-chested characters wearing dunce caps hold a fourth, nude character in the air while another lies on the floor, covering his ears, A sixth figure flees, his head covered with a white cloth. With his hand, he makes the gesture intended to protect him from the evil eye. At the right of the scene, a donkey stands out against the neutral background.
This was one of six canvases Goya sold to the Duke and Duchess of Osuna in 1798, as decoration for their country house in La Alameda. They are linked to the etchings from his Caprichos series, in which he presented scenes of witches and witchcraft similar to this one.
This painting was acquired by the Prado Museum in 1999 with funds from the Villaescusa legacy.
The film also includes references to Rembrandt's "Sea of Galilee" stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 (the whereabouts of Dutch master's only seascape is publicly unknown) and an imagined room of "lost paintings" including Caravaggio's Nativity (stolen from a church in Palermo in 1969 and rumored to have been eaten by pigs).

May 10, 2012

More confirmation of old news? Pietro Grasso, head of the anti-Mafia crime unit, confirms in May that Caravaggio's Nativity of Palermo eaten by pigs

Caravaggio's Nativity from Palermo
In 2009, Judith Harris wrote for the ARCA blog a post titled "Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity" that a member of the mafia told law officials that the painting was likely destroyed in the 1980s.  But just last week, Journalist Noel Grima for The Malta Independent online reported May 6th that Pietro Grasso, the head of the anti-Mafia crime unit, confirmed again that legal authorities believe that the Caravaggio of Palermo has been eaten by pigs.

Possibly no one wants to believe that the painting has been so carelessly destroyed; the FBI and Interpol still list the painting as stolen and missing.

Grima repeats a formerly published article in eosarte.eu "Arezzo, il Procuratore antimafia Pietro Grasso: il Caravaggio di Palermo mangiato dai porci" dated April 22 reports that Grasso confirmed during a press conference earlier rumors that the Nativity paintings with Saints Lorenzo and Francis of Assisi has likely been tossed around by criminals and ended up in a pig sty and eaten by rats and pigs over the years.
"Ci verrobbe tempo perché è una lunga storia ... ma riteniamo che il quadro sia finito nelle mani di ignoranti che l'hanno hascosto in una porcilaia, dove magari porci poi se lo sono mangiato."
Grima translates:
The anti-Mafia's head's reply was a chilling one: "We need more time because the situation is rather complicated, but we believe the painting ended up in the hands of ignorant people who hit it in a pigsty where the pigs ate it."
The Malta connected dates back to the 17th century when the artist was imprisoned there.  Caravaggio himself lead a tumultuous lifestyle documented in Italian police records.

Grima claims that a painting similar to The "Nativity" by Caravaggio would be worth $200 million while the FBI website estimates the value at $20 million.

In October 1969, two thieves entered the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palmero, Italy, according to the FBI, and removed Caravaggio's Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco from its frame.

Interpol still reports the painting as missing on its stolen art database and places the date of the theft as October 18, 1969.  Interpol lists nine other works by Caravaggio (or from the school of or in the manner of) as stolen: Portrait of an Old Woman, Montepulciano, Italy, December 22, 1970; Doubting Tomas from Frascati, Italy, March 15, 1974; Beggars and Invalids (copper painting) from San Sebastian, Spain, April 1978; Man with a Pendant Earring, The Draughts Players, and Venice Feeding the Cupids, from La Storta, Italy, December 1, 1979; Saint Gerolamo, from Dozza, Italy, June 4, 1985; Two Men Playing Dice, from Lessona, Italy, July 27, 1986; and Los Jugadores from Santa Fe de Bogata, Colombia, October 24, 1999.

July 3, 2010

“Stealing Caravaggio: The Odessa File”



On Tuesday, June 28, the interior minister of Ukraine announced the recovery of a painting by Caravaggio that had been stolen on the night of July 31st 2008 from a museum in Odessa, Ukraine. The thieves had out-smarted an antiquated alarm system by removing a pane of glass from the window, instead of breaking it. Once inside the Museum of Western and Eastern Art, the thieves, members of an Organized Crime syndicate, had sliced the canvas off of its stretcher, and disappeared into the night, without tripping a single alarm. An original Caravaggio can fetch upwards of $50 million at auction. But though the thieves were almost certainly unaware of this fact, the stolen “Caravaggio” is a fake.
To be precise, the Odessa Taking of Christ is a contemporary copy of Caravaggio’s original Taking of Christ, which is in the National Gallery of Dublin. The Odessa copy was proclaimed an original by Soviet historians in the 1950s. But a 1993 article by art historian Sergio Benedetti proved what anyone who is familiar with Caravaggio’s work could see from looking at the painting—it was a good, contemporary copy. The figures, particularly that of Christ, are different (and less refined) than Caravaggio’s normal work. The easiest comparison is to juxtapose the Dublin and the Odessa pictures. The Dublin picture is lighter, and yet more brooding, and the figures are sharper. While an original Caravaggio could fetch $50-100 million at auction, a contemporary copy will bring in six figures, perhaps low seven. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, it is highly unlikely that the thieves knew that they were stealing a copy, worth less than 10% of an original Caravaggio.
Caravaggio’s technique was revolutionary. No one in Rome had painted with the naturalism he did, particularly in religious works. Caravaggio also popularized a technique called chiaroscuro, the painting of light emerging from darkness, so that figures gradually and dramatically emerge from an amorphous black background. While religious institutions often deemed Caravaggio’s work “indecorous” (read as: it didn’t look like they expected it to), a passionate group of important private collectors launched Caravaggio’s fame in Rome in the first decade of the 17th century. Artists had never seen work like Caravaggio’s, and they flocked to Rome like pilgrims to learn from him. But Caravaggio was a violent, and thoroughly unpleasant man. He got in a fight with a waiter over an over-cooked artichoke, and killed a member of a rival street gang, ostensibly over a game of tennis. Unlike almost every other great artist of his time, he did not have a studio nor take on apprentices. In fact, he threatened to kill those who emulated his style. This didn’t stop him from being the most-frequently copied artist of his time, in both exact reproductions of his paintings, and in artists appropriating his signature style. The so-called Caravaggisti, among whom the painter of the Odessa Taking of Christ no doubt numbered, were a generation younger than Caravaggio, emulating his style and, in some cases, directly copying his works. It is of interest to note that the original Dublin Taking of Christ was first believed to have been a copy by one of the Dutch Caravaggisti, Gerrit van Honthorst, before it was correctly attributed to the master himself.
According to police and criminologists, the Ukraine is rife with Organized Crime, with the Balkan Mafia particularly active. Their history of stealing art for trade or collateral in deals for drugs and arms suggests that this latest theft is another that can be attributed to them. They almost certainly, however, do not read art history publications like Burlington Magazine, which published the 1993 article proving that the Odessa Taking of Christ was a copy.
So, is the last laugh on them? Are the under-educated Mafia undone by their own lack of research? Unfortunately for poetic justice, no. The thieves are not the only ones who may have missed the Burlington Magazine article. Most people think that the Odessa painting is an original—especially if they believe most world newspaper articles, which reported that it is an original Caravaggio worth $100 million. It seems that most newspaper reporters did as little research as the thieves. Among other criminals, the thieves can present newspaper clippings “proving” that their stolen Caravaggio is original, and simply ignore those who might point out its inauthenticity.
Though The Taking of Christ has now been recovered, the coda to the story of the Odessa “Caravaggio” remains mysterious. Police only reported that the organizer of the crime had been murdered in 2008, leading to speculation on who it might have been.
On December 6, 2008, the Ukrainian Newspaper Weekly Mirror reported:
According to information received by WM (Weekly Mirror) from sources close to the Ministry of the Interior, state law-enforcement agencies have recovered the Caravaggio painting “The Taking of Christ, or the Kiss of Judas.” The painting was stolen from the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art in July of last year...According to several sources, the organizer of theft, who has been under investigation for several months, was found dead.
Three days later, on 9 December 2008, another article linked the death of the organizer to the recovery of the painting: “According to unconfirmed information, the organizer of the theft was found murdered several months ago.”[1] This statement would place the murder of the organizer of the theft soon after the July 31st theft itself.
Or does another murder, one which corresponds to the recovery of the stolen painting, shed more direct light on the organizer of the crime? The question of the identity of the murdered crime organizer remains undisclosed by police. But Nikolai Ponomarenko is a strong possible candidate.
The murder of Ponomarenko, a wealthy Ukranian art collector, was reported in The Economic News on 8 December, 2008:
Viktor Razvadovskii, the chief of police for the Kharkov region, has announced that a valuable painting has been found in the home of the murdered art collector Nikolai Ponomarenko, but that this painting “is not a Caravaggio,” the Ukrainian newspaper Today reported. The find has been sent off for an examination of its authenticity and value. The subject of the painting, which depicts sheep, has nothing in common with the subject of the stolen masterpiece.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian law enforcement officials report that they are close to solving the Caravaggio affair. According to Vasilii Presnyazhnuk, prosecutor for the Odessa region, authorities in one region of Ukraine have seized an automobile transporting five original paintings valued at “3 million euros or more.”[2]
On a few matters, the available facts seem to agree. Organized crime was behind the theft of The Taking of Christ. Ponomarenko’s murder was linked to stolen art. The organizer of the theft, perhaps Ponomarenko himself but certainly someone linked to him, was murdered following the theft. Ponomarenko was involved in the illicit art trade, as a buyer if not an organizer.
Russian and Ukranian Organized Crime experts made several statements to the media regarding art crime in the Ukraine that diverge from the general understanding elsewhere in the world. While it is agreed upon that crimes such as the Odessa theft are most often perpetrated by organized crime groups, the destination of the works stolen in the Ukraine is, according to these authorities, criminal collectors:
“In the 90s the antiques mafia worked to export. Now they steal for themselves,” asserts the head of the department of local investigation of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Vladimira Gusak. “Basically, rare pieces find their way into the private collections of well-to-do Ukrainians.”[3]
In reality, very few individuals who could be categorized as “criminal collectors” have played a role in known art crimes over the past fifty years. The presence of criminal collectors is a popular misconception—they certainly do exist, but the documented examples of the knowing purchase of stolen fine art, and particularly the commission of thefts of fine art, are few, and negligible in comparison with the majority of art crime cases. Identifiable works of fine art stolen from public collections, such as The Taking of Christ, are much more likely to be held for ransom, or traded on a closed black market between criminal groups, used for barter or as collateral in deals for other illicit goods, such as drugs and arms. Despite this, unnamed “specialists” suggest that private collectors are responsible for the majority of fine art thefts in Russia and the Ukraine:
Black market “specialists” assert that oligarch-mafia men have paid at least 100 million dollars for the painting and are hiding it from the public gaze in their apartments. Their professional colleagues at the museum suggest that in this case we are dealing with a premeditated, commissioned crime... So, it is most likely that the treasure is sitting in the private collection of some sort of oligarch whom the detectives will never reach.[4]
Last Tuesday, 28 June, Anatoly Mogylyov, the interior minister of Ukraine, announced that German and Ukrainian police had recovered the Taking of Christ and had arrested members of an organized crime group that specializes in high-value thefts of items that include artworks. The group had intended to sell the “Caravaggio” in Berlin.
It is incredibly rare to find a case in which a private collector commissioned the theft of artwork for their private delectation. Far more often, organized crime gangs steal art on the assumption that they will be able to find a buyer—and the failure to locate the elusive criminal collector results in gangs holding on to art that they have been unable to sell. This example is a case in point—an organized crime group stole the painting but failed to find a buyer and, around two years later, they still retained the stolen painting.
The mention of certainty that “oligarch-mafia men have paid at least $100 million for the painting” tells us that the thieves were able to convince at least someone that The Taking of Christ is by Caravaggio, when the rest of the art history world knows that it is not. Were there any question of the painting’s value, the thieves need only have brandished any of the international newspaper articles that blazed headlines “$100 Million Caravaggio Stolen From Odessa,” to provide their proof of its value. World newspapers wouldn’t lie, would they? Probably not, at least not intentionally. But they would allow their enthusiasm for a hot story to impair the diligence of their research, effectively handing Organized Crime $100 million, when the actual value of the stolen painting was likely less than 1% percent of that figure. Even yesterday’s New York Times article reporting on the recovery of the “Caravaggio” failed to mention that the “Caravaggio” is not, in fact, a Caravaggio.
Journalists, it seems, can be an art thief’s best friend.
by Noah Charney

[1] “The Kiss of Christ was Returned to the Odessa Museum” in Novoe Vremya, 12/9/08. All translations by Joel Knopf.
[2] From an 8 December 2008 article in E'konomicheskie novosti
[3] From “Karadzho ushel po kryshe,” published in Trud, 9/02/2008
[4] “POTsELUI' IUDY DLIa...OLIGARKhA,” Rabochaia gazeta, No.141, August 06, 2008, p. 4

December 18, 2009

Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity

Caravaggio, Nativity with Saint Lawrence
 and Saint Francis, 268 x 197 cm


by Judith Harris

ROME - No U.S. post office has displayed the Holy Family in its rogues’ gallery of most wanted, but a Nativity scene painted by Caravaggio has had FBI star billing on its list of the “Top Ten Art Crimes” longer than any other work of art in history.

Caravaggio’s large altarpiece, the Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis, valued at $20 million, was stolen forty years ago from the unguarded Oratory of San Lorenzo, a confraternity hall in Palermo. Persistent rumors had the paintings in the hands of the Mafia, and not long ago the former chief of the Carabinieri crack art squad hypothesized that it was “still somewhere in an attic.”

In mid-2009, so-called pentiti, or “repentant” mafiosi, began making fresh revelations to Sicilian magistrates who were investigating other crimes, and one convicted mobster admitted physically removing the painting from above the altar. This December a second turncoat named Gaspare Spatuzza told investigators that during meetings of the Cupola the Caravaggio Nativity would be propped up against a wall.

Now Spatuzza has also admitted learning in 1999 that the Caravaggio Nativity had been hidden at some point in the 1980’s in a barn where it was “ruined, eaten by rats and hogs, and therefore burned.” Spatuzza said he learned this in a prison conversation with the boss of his own murderous Palermo Mafia clan, Filippo Graviano. Spatuzza’s testimony is part of an ongoing trial in Florence where a court is trying to unravel the possible connections between government officials and the Mafia in 1993, when a bomb killed six near the Uffizi Gallery. The testimony is technically hearsay. Although Graviano, like Spatuzza in prison, has been ordered to give testimony before the Florentine court December 16, he is unlikely to confirm the story because the Caravaggio theft is not part of that inquiry. However, Palermo chief prosecutor Antonino Gatto has requested the transfer of Spatuzza’s testimony, signifying that a fresh inquiry has opened there. This would put any inquiry there under official state secrecy.

How reliable is Spatuzza? For the moment, no one is talking, in part because of the presumed new inquiry in Palermo, but also because, as the head of the DEA told this reporter many years ago, “We are not dealing with choir boys.” Spatuzza’s motives are obviously being questioned, as are his ongoing relations with the former bosses he still considers dear friends, the Graviano brothers. one hypothesis is that the Mafia bosses (at least some of them) in Sicily consider the Premier Silvio Berlusconi a burned out case—he is not by any means--, and are casting about for political patrons in Sicily. For this reason interest in the destiny of the Caravaggio has taken very much of a back seat.

Now, a backward view. In 1992 the supposedly pentito Mafia killer Giovanni Brusco told a judge that he had personally tried to negotiate with the Italian State over the return of the Caravaggio Nativity in a swap for more lenient conditions for convicted mafiosi. Several years ago yet another pentito, Salvatore Cangemi, alleged that the Mafia still possessed the Caravaggio, which was put on view as a trophy at meetings of the top bosses of Cosa Nostra, the Cupola.

On the basis of other statements by pentiti, at least a partial reconstruction can be made. The first to speak of the stolen painting was Francesco Marino Mannoia, a particularly cruel Mafia boss who confessed in 1996 to having been among those who stole the painting in 1969. Mannoia said that he had used a razor blade to remove it from its frame and had then rolled it up (or perhaps had folded it), and had taken it to the unnamed individual who had ordered the theft. But when consignment was to be made, Mannoia said, the sponsor refused it because the painting had been damaged during transport. At that point, according to Mannoia, he destroyed the painting. Mannoia now lives in the US as a protected witness.

Investigative reporter Peter Watson then said that in late 1980 he received an offer for the painting from an individual at Laviano, near Salerno, but that the earthquake in the Irpinia interrupted the contact and that he presumed the painting was destroyed.

However, in 2001, according to General Roberto Conforti, who at that time still headed the crack Carabinieri art squad he had founded, “We were searching a farm near Palermo after we were given a ‘tip’ that the work was hidden under a cement cover—but then nothing,” he told Paolo Conti of Corriere della Sera in an interview published on August 24 2004.

A Sicilian press report also alleged that Carabinieri there reported at least three attempts made after the Irpinia earthquake to sell the painting. This might explain why the now retired General Conforti told the reporter from Corriere della Sera in 2004 that he believed the Caravaggio still existed in or near Palermo, perhaps “forgotten in the attic of some old lady who doesn’t know its worth.”

In 2005 the Australian reporter Peter Robb alleged that Mannoia had made a mistake, and that the canvas Mannois was referring to was not the Caravaggio at all.

According to Spatuzza, the canvas had been given to the clan of Gianbattista Pullara and his brothers in Palermo, who hid it in the barn where it was damaged and finally burned as a result.

This is unlikely to be the last such theft. Although top-flight works by Old Masters are hard to place on the international market, thefts of both works of art and archaeology (and especially the latter) are on the rise: the crackdown on international financial transactions following the Twin Towers tragedy has made works of art the material for hostage-like barter in cross-border swaps of arms and drugs, in place of cash, according to investigators here.

The brilliant, temperamental artist was born as Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio near Milan in 1571 and studied art under Titian. After his vile temper led him into a brawl with a police officer, he fled, penniless, from Milan for Rome. By then in his early twenties, he continued as a maverick in both art and life. On the one hand his theatrical paintings, precursors of the Baroque style that would become the hallmark of the Rome we see today, literally revolutionized the art world, and he was befriended by an aristocratic Venetian cardinal who became his patron, Francesco Del Monte, who also introduced Caravaggio to Galileo.

In 1606 the ever truculent Caravaggio got into yet another tavern brawl and ran his sword through a man. A warrant for his arrest and execution was pending, and so he fled from Rome. While hiding out in Malta in 1608, he painted the grisly Beheading of John the Baptist but then, after another move that same year, this time to Sicily, he softened, painting two large, touching Nativity scenes. These are a far cry from the glorified Nativity scenes of the Venetian artists. The lost Palermo Nativity shows a somewhat forlorn Madonna with Baby Jesus laid upon a kerchief on straw on the rough ground surrounded by barnyard animals and saints in the guise of shepherds. On the lightly sketched ceiling beams of the barn the wing of a floating angel cast in an ominous shadow hints at the future in the form of a cross.

Art and archaeological thefts are on the rise, according to investigators here, who say that the crackdown on international financial transactions following the Twin Towers tragedy has made works of art the material for hostage-like barter in cross-border swaps of arms and drugs, in place of cash.

Most fortunately the second Nativity scene Caravaggio painted in Sicily for a church in Messina is still intact and indeed has just been placed under restoration, visible to the public through a street-front window, inside a building attached to the Italian Parliament in Rome.