Showing posts with label Sicilian Mafia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sicilian Mafia. Show all posts

October 24, 2018

Court of Palermo dismisses charges of mafia association against Gianfranco Becchina.


Following a formal request by the Deputy Prosecutor for the District Anti-Mafia Directorate  Carlo Marzella, preliminary reexamination judge of of the Court of Palermo, Antonella Consiglio, has dismissed the charge of mafia association against the Castelvetrano antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  In her decision, the judge cited that the accusations used for the basis of the charge, made via testimonies given by Vincenzo Calcara, an exMafia soldier and pentito (collaborator of justice), have been deemed "unreliable". 

The link from Matteo Messina Denaro to Gianfranco Becchina is said to begin with Denaro's father, Francesco Messina Denaro, who was the capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and the head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region. Francesco Messina Denaro was believed to have been behind the theft of the famous Efebo of Selinunte, a 5th century BCE statue of Dionysius Iachos, stolen on October 30, 1962 and recovered in 1968 through the help of Rodolfo Siviero,

Image Credit: Accademia degli incerti
The informant Calcara, who gave testimony against the art dealer, is a former protege of Francesco Messina Denaro of the Castelvetrano family and has faced his own legal dramas related to his involvement in international drug trafficking and money laundering, some underworld activities which purportedly also implicated the Vatican bank.  Verbose mafia defector Calcara's claims of self importance, and connections to the upper echelons of the mafia, have lethal overtones.  In the passed he has said he was originally tasked with killing antimafia Judge Paolo Borsellino in September 1991 with a sniper rifle but was arrested before he could carry out the plot.


Involved in the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and political corruption Calcara was once offered a place in the government's witness protection program but refused.  Later the Cosa Nostra determined his whereabouts and threatened his wife if she didn't get him to stop talking to authorities.  

Back in 1992, Calcara and now deceased former drug dealer Rosario Spatola incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.  At the time of Spatola's testimony, much of his information was also discounted as many were skeptical that he had actual knowledge or whether he invented things for his own benefit.

To dismantle Denaro's operational funding, which authorities believe has helped him remain at large as a fugitive from justice, Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA), through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, seized all movable assets related to Becchina in November 2017 including real estate and corporate enterprises on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo.  This included Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Olio Verde srl., his olive oil production company, Demetra srl., Becchina & company srl., and Palazzo Pignatelli, once the noble residence of the family Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, which is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider (the public part is owned by the city and houses the town hall).  Investigators also seized Becchina's land, vehicles and bank accounts.

What will happen with the seized properties and businesses remains a manner for the Preventive Measures Section of the Trapani court to decide but given his close ties with other incarcerated mafia affiliates, Becchina's story is not yet finished. 

In 1991 Sicilian building magnate Rosario Cascio became connected with Becchina's Atlas Cements Ltd., and took over as reference shareholder and director.  Before his incarceration, Cascio was a Mafia Associate to several bosses in multiple families including fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro with strong ties to the Castelvetrano family.   Known as the "cashier of Cosa Nostra." Cascio once had a hit put out on him by mobster Angelo Siino only to have Matteo Messina Denaro intervene on his behalf.  Cascio managed the family's economic activities and sub-contracts, and monopolized the concrete market and the sale of and construction equipment.  He also steered public contracts towards mafia businesses and managed an extortion racket which imposed sub contracts and labor.  

So, while there are no (longer) "reliable" statements proving Becchina is formally "affiliated" with the Castelvetrano organized crime family, his connections to other individuals who are or were, and the properties connected to joint operations with mafia collaborators, are still subject to judicial consideration.  

November 17, 2017

A Sicilian Mafia Primer to Organized Crime Members with apparent ties to Gianfranco Becchina


This is a list of mafia-tied individuals and cooperating mafia-tied individuals authorities have stated have associations with, or who have directly implicated, Gianfranco Becchina for Cosa Nostra involvement. 

(Note:  This list is not complete and will be updated periodically as other names and details are released.)

Giovanni Brusca - Ex Capomafia of the San Giuseppe Jato family.  Incarcerated. Also known as "U' Verru" (in Sicilian) or Il Porco or Il Maiale, (In Italian: The Pig, The Swine) or lo scannacristiani (christian-slayer; in Italian dialects the word "christians" often stands in place of human beings). The information he provided regarding Becchina has not been made public though it appears to implicate Becchina with having had a relationship with  Francesco Messina Denaro and fencing of antiquities.

Calculating and violent, Brusca is known to have tortured the 11-year-old son of a mafia turncoat or pentito to get him to retract statements made to the authorities in connection to the Capaci massacre.  After holding the boy hostage for 26 months, he strangled the child and dissolved his body in acid.  Brusca  once stated that he had killed "between 100 and 200" people with his own hands but was unable to recall exactly how many murders he had participated in or ordered.

Brusca is also responsible for detonating 100 kilograms of TNT in 1992 under the highway between Palermo and the Punta Raisi airport in a bomb attack which murdered anti-Mafia magistrate and prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, Falcone's wife and five of his bodyguards. In 1993 Brusca mounted further bombing raids throughout mainland Italy hoping to intimidate politicians into reversing decrees for tougher jail regimes for incarcerated mafiosi. This wave of bombings in Florence, Milan and Rome left 10 people dead and injured 70 others.

Later, after his arrest, and through a series of strange accords, Brusca also turned informant, though much of his testimony has, at times, appeared to be self serving.  His testimony has afforded him controversial and exceptional treatment in direct contrast with his previous level of lethality. According to some of the testimony released, Messina Denaro was given the job of picking which paintings to target in the Florence bombing that ripped through a wing of the world famous Uffizi gallery because of his knowledge of art.    He is currently sentenced to life in prison.

Rosario Cascio - Mafia Associate to several bosses in multiple families including the fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro of the Castelvetrano family.  Incarcerated.  A Sicilian building magnate known as the "cashier of Cosa Nostra." At one time had a hit put out on him by mobster Angelo Siino only to have Matteo Messina Denaro intervene on his behalf.

Cascio managed the family's economic activities and sub-contracts, and monopolized the concrete market and the sale of and construction equipment.  Through these he steered public contracts towards mafia businesses and managed an extortion racket which imposed sub contracts and labor.  In 1991 Cascio became connected with Becchina's Atlas cements Ltd., and took over as reference shareholder and director.

Vincenzo Calcara - exMafia soldier of the Castelvetrano family and collaborator of justice. Former protege of Francesco Messina Denaro.  Previously involved in international drug trafficking and money laundering which purportedly implicated the Vatican bank.  Calcara was originally tasked to kill antimafia Judge Paolo Borsellino with a sniper rifle but was arrested before he could carry out the plot. Involved in the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and political corruption. Offered a place in the witness protection program but refused.  Later Cosa Nostra determined his whereabouts and threatened his wife if she didn't get him to stop talking to authorities.  In 1992 Calcara and Rosario Spatola incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.

Lorenzo Cimarosa -  Mafia declarant and law enforcement collaborator. Deceased.  Died as the result of cancer while on house arrest. Cimarosa was married to a cousin of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro. Cimarosa told authorities about a warning message Becchina received from the mob in January 2012.  In that incident, someone fired shots from a shotgun at Becchina's door and left an intimidating gift of flowers. Cimarosa told authorities that he had heard through Francesco Guttadauro, nephew of the boss of the Castelvetrano family, that the incident was ordered by Matteo Messina Denaro himself for non-delivery of payments.  Cimorosa indicated that between 70 and 80,000 euros were paid through Becchina regularly. After his death the site where Cimorasa was buried has subsequently vandalized, perhaps as a warning to his wife and son. 

Francesco Messina Denaro - Capo Mandamento of the Castelvetrano family.  Deceased.  Died in hiding in 1998 while a fugitive from justice.  Father to Matteo Messina Denaro who took over his father's enterprise.  Francesco, also known as Don Ciccio, headed up the Castelvetrano family from 1981 until 1998 and was a member of the Cupola (Mafia Commission) of the Trapani region from 1983 until his death in 1998.  He was a close ally to the Corleone faction led by Salvatore "Totò" Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.  Purportedly had ties to Becchina relating to the theft, looting, and laundering of antiquities. 

Matteo Messina Denaro - Boss of the Castelvetrano family. Also known as "Diabolik." Fugutive.  Solidified his position in the mafia following the arrests of two of his predecessors, Salvatore "Totò" Riina in 1993 and Bernardo Provenzano in 2006.  A fugitive since 1993, he has been convicted in absentia for the Sicilian mafia's bombing campaign in the early 1990s, which killed magistrates and bystanders in Sicily, Rome and Florence which killed ten people and injured 93 others.  He once boasted "I filled a cemetery all by myself." According to Giovanni Brusca, Matteo Messina Denaro was the facilitator of the 1993 Uffizi gallery bombing in Florence.  In that incident a Fiat car packed with 100kg of explosives detonated killing six people, and destroying three paintings - two by Bartolomeo Manfredi and one by the Gherardo delle Notti.  He was also implicated in the bombing of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.  Becchina allegedly passed envelopes of money to Denaro's brother in law and sister. Investigative seizures made by authorities in connection with this Cosa Nostra boss are so extensive it is hard to tell where the economy of western Sicily stops and Denaro’s mafia-controlled empire begins.  

Patrizia Messina Denaro - Sister of fugitive Boss and Capodonna representative of the Castelvetrano family.  Incarcerated.  Serving a 14 year and 6 months sentence for acting as stand in Capo Donna for her brother.  She was found guilty of being a full member of the Mafia and not an affiliate mafia. Several firms including an olive-oil company belonging to her and her husband were impounded and a number of bank accounts frozen.

Francesco Geraci - Mafia associate to Boss of Bosses Salvatore "Totò" Riina of of the Catania Family.  Incarcerated. There are two Cosa Nostra affiliates in custody with this same name.  One is the nephew and one is son of a deceased capomafia of the mafia family of Chiusa Sclafani.  It is unclear at this time which is cooperating with authorities. 

Giuseppe Grigoli - Mafia associate to the Castelvetrano family and law enforcement collaborator. Incarcerated. Also known as "Grigg." Former owner of a chain of Despar supermarkets in Sicily, convicted of being the entrepreneurial arm of fugitive Messina Denaro’s organisation using his retail and distribution group to launder Matteo Messina Denaro's cash.  Told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro. These exchanges were said to have taken place in the former offices of 6Gdo, the distribution chain confiscated just at the time of his arrest. 

Concetto Mariano - Mafia Associate of the Cosa Nostra Marsala family and law enforcement collaborator. Incarcerated. Mariano began cooperating with justice officials two months after being arrested.  Implicated Becchina in a plot to steal and fence in Switzerland the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, attributed by scholars to Praxiteles housed at the Piazza Plebiscito Museum in Mazara del Vallo.

Vincenzo Panicola - Mafia associate. -Incarcerated.  Brother-in-Law of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro. Husband of Patrizia Messina Denaro, sister of the boss.  Worked with mafia associate Mafia associate to the Castelvetrano family, Giuseppe Grigoli. Convicted in 2013 to ten years in prison. Several firms including an olive-oil company belonging to him and his wife were impounded and a number of bank accounts frozen.

Santo Sacco - Mafia associate - Incarcerated.  A former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, Sacco was  sentenced to 12 years for is affiliations with Matteo Messina Denaro in the control of various business activities, including alternative energy as well as activities in support of the families of mobsters incarcerated.  Wiretaps of conversations with Becchina show collusion towards vote fixing and influence peddling in support of the election campaigns of Giuseppe Marinello and Ludovico Corrao. 

Angelo Siino - Mafia associate to the San Giuseppe Jato family. Incarcerated.  Often referred to as Cosa Nostra's "ex-minister of public works".  A businessman who oversaw whose principal duties were to oversee mafia public sector affairs through the illegal acquisition of public work contracts. Siino would receive the lists of public contracts before they became publicised and through through threats and extortion, insure that these contracts would be awarded to mafia influence coalitions, thereby controlling the market for public contracts in Sicily.

Rosario Spatola - Law enforcement collaborator.  Deceased. A former drug dealer who passed information in the 1990s to Judge Paolo Borsellino on drug trafficking in Trapani area and the role of the clan led by Boss Francesco Messina Denaro.  Believed by some not to be a true member of Cosa Nostra as his father was a policeman making his membership void.  In 1992 Spatola and Vincenzo Calcara, incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.  At the time much of his testimony was discounted as many were skeptical that he had actual knowledge or invented things to his own benefit.

For more details on this case please see the following to blog posts here and here

November 16, 2017

Il vento sta cambiando, updates on Gianfranco Becchina asset seizure, fire, and vote fixing.

Politics and mafia are both powers which draw life from the control of the same territory; so they either wage war or come to some form of agreement.
--Paolo Borsellino,
Italian magistrato italiano, murdered by the Mafia


Yesterday ARCA reported on the assets seizures involving 78-year-old Gianfranco Becchina, an action taken in relation to probable collusion with the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra. The disgraced Italian antiquities dealer was convicted in the first degree in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. A portion of his accumulated business records, up until 2002, were seized earlier by Swiss and Italian authorities during raids conducted on Becchina’s Swiss art gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland. This archive of documents and photos, known as the Becchina archive, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents and photos related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through this dealer's network of illicit suppliers.


Mafia association is a formal criminal offense provided for by the Italian penal code introduced into law via article 416-ter of Law no. 646/1982, and designed to combat the spread of the Mafia.

Art. 416-ter reads: 

"Any person participating in a Mafia-type unlawful association including three or more persons shall be liable to imprisonment for 7 to 12 years. 

Those persons promoting, directing or organizing the said association shall be liable, for this sole offence, to imprisonment for 9 to 14 years. 

Mafia-type unlawful association is said to exist when the participants take advantage of the intimidating power of the association and of the resulting conditions of submission and silence to commit criminal offences, to manage or at all events control, either directly or indirectly, economic activities, concessions, authorizations, public contracts and services, or to obtain unlawful profits or advantages for themselves or for others, or with a view to prevent or limit the freedom to vote, or to get votes for themselves or for others on the occasion of an election. 

Should the association be of the armed type, the punishment shall be imprisonment for 9 to 15 years pursuant to paragraph 1 and imprisonment for 12 to 24 years pursuant to paragraph 2. 

An association is said to be of the armed type when the participants have firearms or explosives at their disposal, even if hidden or deposited elsewhere, to achieve the objectives of the said association. 

If the economic activities of which the participants in the said association aim at achieving or maintaining the control are funded, totally or partially, by the price, the products or the proceeds of criminal offences, the punishments referred to in the above paragraphs shall be increased by one-third to one-half. 

The offender shall always be liable to confiscation of the things that were used or meant to be used to commit the offence and of the things that represent the price, the product or the proceeds of such offence or the use thereof. 

The provisions of this article shall also apply to the Camorra, ‘ndrangheta and to any other associations, whatever their local titles, even foreigners, seeking to achieve objectives that correspond to those of Mafia-type unlawful association by taking advantage of the intimidating power of the association." 

To further dismantle Matteo Messina Denaro’s operational funding, Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) moved to seize Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli yesterday.  Palazzo Pignatelli is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider, a separate portion of which is owned by the city of Castelvetrano and houses the town hall. 

During the execution of the seizure of assets at Palazzo Pignatelli, a fire mysteriously broke out in a first-floor study, located in Becchina's wing of of the property.  Called on the scene, fire department officials extinguished the flames yesterday and returned for a second time today, along with the DIA and scientific police to uncover any traces that would determine the cause of the fire.

The seizure of these Becchina assets comes following the cooperation of mafia associate/police informant Giuseppe Grigoli, known in wiretaps as Grig.  Grigoli once owned a chain of Despar supermarkets in northwestern Sicily, used to launder mafia proceeds into the legal economy.  Starting out in 1974 as the owner of one grocery, Grigoli parlayed his relationship with Cosa Nostra, building a business empire which was once valued as a 700 million euro enterprise. 

The Italian authorities seized Grigoli's assets when they tied him to mafia  transactions through banking documents from 1999 through 2002, when the "king of supermarkets" was at the height of his business success. The arrest and conviction of Grigoli proved to be the tip of the Trapani Cosa Nostra iceberg and served to flush out many players in the hidden network of strategic partners that facilitate the activities of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, including now, Gianfranco Becchina. 

As a now cooperating police informant, Grigoli told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro.  But Becchina's mafia influence doesn't apparently stop at trafficking of antiquities and aiding and abetting a mobster on the run. 

An article written in today’s La Repubblica by journalist Salvo Palazzolo, reports that during a 2001 Carabinieri TPC wiretap into Becchina’s role in the illicit trafficking of antiquities, law enforcement authorities overheard conversations between Becchina and Santo Sacco, a former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, who was later sentenced for mafia association.

In police transcripts of those conversations Becchina implicated himself as being involved in vote fixing in support of the election campaign of Giuseppe Marinello, from the People of Freedom party, who, at the time, was running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies representing Sciacca in Sicily.  In their conversation Sacco also boasted about his role in the campaign of Ludovico Corrao saying "But I fully carried inside an iron bell ... I'm not kidding, 6,400 votes..."  Both incidences clearly show the impact of organized crime on parliamentary elections in Sicily.

In a mysterious wrinkle to this story, ex senator Corrao was later the victim of a gruesome murder. In 2011 his throat was found cut with a kitchen knife, nearly decapitating his head, both wrists had been slashed and he was left in a bloody pool having apparently also been bludgeoned with a statuette. After the slaughter, Seiful Islam, a Bangladeshi servant, called the police and confessed to the murder.  Islam later attempted suicide while in custody and was found not guilty by reason of unsound mind and transferred to a psychiatric facility.

Illicit trafficking,
money laundering,
influence peddling,
vote fixing,
arson,
murder.

Organized crime is detrimental not just to art, but to the functioning of a society.

By:  Lynda Albertson

November 15, 2017

Assets of Gianfranco Becchina seized in relation to mafia collusion

DIA Seizing Gianfranco Becchina assets 
Most people who follow the illicit trafficking of antiquities will already be familiar with the name of Gianfranco Becchina -- a name frequently linked to Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes, and Bob Hecht and their roles in furthering the illicit antiquities trade.  Less well known perhaps, at least among the who's who list of criminals involved in art crimes, is Matteo Messina Denaro, or the details of Becchina's alleged involvement with the inner circle of this Cosa Nostra kingpin. This, despite the fact that Becchina seems to have been sent a warning message from the mob in January 2012, when someone fired shots from a shotgun at his door and left an intimidating gift of flowers.

L'omertà e la paura and the boss of bosses

With a name straight out of an Italian comic book, Matteo Messina Denaro, also known as "Diabolik", solidified his position in the mafia following the arrests of two of his predecessors, Salvatore "Totò" Riina in 1993 and Bernardo Provenzano in 2006.  He is said to command close to 1000 underlings, through 20 mafia families and white collar business associates.  This  makes his Trapani-based enterprise the defacto zoccolo duro (solid pedestal) of the Cosa Nostra, second only to the families in Palermo responsible for illicit trafficking across the Atlantic between the new generations of the American and Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

Ruthless and calculating,  Denaro earned a reputation for brutality by murdering rival Trapani crime boss Vincenzo Milazzo, and then strangling Milazzo's girlfriend who was then three months pregnant. A fugitive since 1993, he was convicted in absentia for mafia bomb attacks that killed 10 people in Rome, Florence and Milan and wounded many others.

As is common among organized crime syndicates, Denaro saught to diversify his interests.  Wiretaps obtained by prosecutors suggest that the crime boss had interests in more than 40 corporate entities and 98 properties, laundering funds through various third parties and third party entities.

In 2013 anti-Mafia task force investigators seized a prized Trapani-based olive grove in Sicily worth €20m on the basis that profits from this agricultural enterprise provided an economic support structure for the fugitive crime boss. In 2015, 16, and 17 more arrests and seizures followed as the authorities work to cut off the revenue streams of the boss on the run.

Despite being a fugitive from justice, this entrepreneur mafioso with dirty hands is thought to be hiding in plain sight somewhere in Sicily,  perhaps even in his home town, Castelvetrano, where Becchina resides and where Denaro's relatives and a daughter, conceived while on the lam, reside.

Image Credit: Bellumvider Cultural Society
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To further dismantle Denaro's operational funding, this week Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (Dia), through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, seized all movable assets,  including real estate and corporate enterprises attributable to Gianfranco Becchina on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo.  This includes Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Olio verde srl., his own olive oil production company, Demetra srl., Becchina & company srl., and Palazzo Pignatelli, once the noble residence of the family Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, which is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider (the public part is owned by the city and houses the town hall).  Investigators also seized Becchina's land, vehicles and bank accounts.

The Trapani branch of the Cosa Nostra is believed to have accumulated some portions of its wealth through the proceeds of illicit archaeological finds, many procured through grave robbers working at the isolated Archaeological Park of Selinunte, one of Sicily's great ancient Greek cities, located near Castelvetrano.  The archaeological site covers 40 hectares and includes Greek temples, ancient town walls, and the ruins of residential and commercial buildings and given its remote location, much of the site has not been formally excavated, leaving it prey to opportunistic looters.

Image Credit: Accademia degli incerti

The link from Matteo Messina Denaro to Gianfranco Becchina begins with Denaro's father,  Francesco Messina Denaro, who was the capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and the head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region. Francesco Messina Denaro was believed to have been behind the theft of the famous Efebo of Selinunte, a 3′ tall bronze statue of Dionysius Iachos from the 5th century BCE, stolen on October 30, 1962 and recovered in 1968 through the help of Rodolfo Siviero, who orchestrated a sting operation with mafia contacts by posing as the "nephew" of a Florentine art gallery that would purchase antiquities without asking too many questions about ownership.  When the mafia intermediaries tried to fence the statue in Foligno, six accomplices were arrested and the statue was returned to the Civic Museum of Castelvetrano, though not before a shootout with the authorities. 

Law enforcement authorities working on this case drew information about Becchina's connection to Cosa Nostra through former traffic cop, Concetto Mariano of the Cosa Nostra Marsala family. Mariano began cooperating with justice officials two months after being arrested.  A second informant, Giuseppe Grigoli, again a cooperating Cosa Nostra prestanome told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina, to be delivered discreetly to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro, both of whom have been convicted for their own mafia collusion and have had substantial property holdings of their own confiscated.

The Dancing Satyr
Image Credit piazza Plebiscito Museum
A unnamed Marsala family informant also told law enforcement that he had been instructed by the head of his mafia command to steal the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, attributed by scholars to Praxiteles housed at the Piazza Plebiscito Museum in Mazara del Vallo.  The order for the theft (never executed) was said to have come directly from Matteo Messina Denaro, who would then be marketing it  through experienced Swiss channels.

Interestingly, this dancing satyr bronze was purportedly fished from the Strait of Sicily by a fishing boat from Mazara called the "Captain Ciccio" in 1997.  Mafioso Francesco Messina Denaro, also went by the name  "Don Ciccio"

Mere coincidence? 

Maybe, but along with the eight men of his crew, the captain and owner of the Captain Ciccio received a hefty reward for their fishing expedition.


Maybe, but along with the eight men of his crew, the captain and owner of the Captain Ciccio received a hefty reward for their fishing expedition.

Shipowner Toni Scilla received fifty percent; Francesco Adragna, as captain, received twenty-five percent; and the rest of the prize was divided between crew members in proportion to their job duties as boatswain, engineer, or shipmate.

UPDATE:  As of late morning a fire has broken out at Becchina's residence at Palazzo Pignatelli.   Reports say the fire occurred in his daughter's apartment during the execution of the DIA search warrant.  Investigators suspect that it was a Becchina family member intent on destroying certain documents.

No confirmation by the fire department yet as to if the fire was arson or accidental. 

May 16, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: Watson's "The Caravaggio Conspiracy" and the motive for stealing the Palermo Nativity

Agrigento Ephebe
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA blog editor

Part two of three

In the 1984 book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, published by British journalist Peter Watson, Rodolfo Siviero is described as a the leading detective of stolen art in Italy.

Before Caravaggio's Nativity was stolen in 1969, Siviero had been working to recover art misplaced since World War II.  Siviero was 'an undercover agent in German-occupied Italy', Watson reported, and was 'head of the Italian Secret Service attached to the Allied Command.'  Part of his job was to oversee the protection of works of art, Watson explained.  When Siviero became the first Italian ambassador to Germany after the war, he used wartime records to look for paintings looted by the Nazis from the Uffizi, Watson wrote, and listed works Siviero helped to recover: Bronzino's Deposition of Christ, Antonio Pollaiuolo's Labors of Hercules; Domenico Feti's Parable of the Vine; a self-portrait by Lorenzo di Credi, a Nativity by a pupil of Correggio; Botticelli's Primavera and Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Remo.

When Siviero returned to Italy, he was put in charge of the Delegation for the Recovery of Missing Works of Art (Watson).  He recovered works of art not related to war looting.  Watson wrote that Siviero recovered a fifth century B.C. bronze statue known of a boy known as the Ephebus from the Mafia in a sting operation.  Siviero posed as the "nephew" of a Florentine art gallery that would purchase objects without asking questions about ownership.  The bronze was recovered, Watson wrote, and six men arrested shortly before Caravaggio's Nativity was stolen.  "It was the Mafia's way of exacting revenge.  And this time, it was whispered, Siviero would not see the stolen work of art again.  Ever." (Watson)

This article concludes on May 18.

May 14, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: Peter Watson on the Palermo Nativity in the 1984 book "The Caravaggio Conspiracy"

The Palermo Nativity
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Part one of three

Repeated rumors of the destruction of Caravaggio's painting, Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, reminded me of Peter Watson's telling of how an earthquake in southern Italy interupted his attempts to recover the painting ten years after it was stolen from a chapel in Sicily.

Watson's 1984 book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy (Doubleday), documents the journalist's cooperation with 'Italy's greatest art detective', Rodolfo Sievero, to recover The Nativity in 1979.  Watson, a British journalist, and Sievero, who at the time was 'an Italian diplomat' who headed 'a small section of the Italian Foreign Office exclusively concerned with the recovery of stolen art', concocted a plan to get one of Siviero's suspects in the theft of The Nativity to offer the Caravaggio or another stolen painting to Watson.

In the eighth chapter of the book, Watson sympathetically describes Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio as a maverick painter whose erratic behavior and subsequent criminal record may have been the result of an illness contracted in his early years in Rome.  "Caravaggio's approach to his art -- conveying miraculous biblical episodes through vividly real but otherwise ordinary people, revolutionized painting," Watson wrote.

As an aside, I point out that in his summary of Caravaggio's career, Watson highlights the contribution after 1590 of one of the painter's supporters who originated from Amelia, home to ARCA's summer program and its International Art Conference:
A certain Monsignor Petrignani provided him with a room -- it was hardly a studio -- and Caravaggio began to turn out many pictures.  The younger painter enjoyed this work more, but though he was prolific he was not successful.  The arrangement eventually bore fruit, however, through the good offices of an art dealer named Valentino who had exhibited paintings by Caravaggio and finally succeeded in selling several of them to Cardinal del Monte.
The 16th century Palazzo Petrignani hosted the 2010 International Art Crime Conference in Amelia.

In 1609, running from knights and friends of a man who died by the painter's sword, Caravaggio painted what Watson describes as the "Adoration of the Child with St. Francis and St. Lawrence" (also  known as the "Palermo Nativity") in the church of the Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo. Watson wrote:
It is an unusual painting for Caravaggio: it almost seems that the events of the preceding months were beginning to catch up with him.  It is still a Caravaggio but it is as if he had begun to doubt his own vision.  The peasants watching the event are in the old, familiar style.  They are ordinary, balding, tired rather shabby people lost in wonder.  But Mary particularly is a more stylized figure: her features are regular, smooth, her skin is like marble.  There is even an angel descending from on high.  Some sort of change appeared to be coming over Caravaggio.... Whoever had stolen it had taken more than an object; he had deprived the world of a sign of change in the mind -- the somewhat unstable mind -- of a great man.
Caravaggio's eight foot by seven foot painting of the Nativity served as the altarpiece for the Baroque chapel of the Oratory of San Lorenzo for 359 years until it had been "hacked" "out of its splendid frame with a razor blade," Watson wrote.

A few weeks after the theft, Siviero, Watson wrote, had received a message that the theft had been revenge for what Siviero had done 'to the Mafia over the Ephebus in Foligno."

Part two continued on May 16.

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.