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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


A gentle reminder that journalists were actually the first to broadcast Sergio Benedetti's research proving that the Odessa picture was not the original. See my early postings on this topic back in August 2008 (, which follows the courteous convention of acknowledging earlier posts on this issue. I'm still not sure what is to be gained from hammering home a largely unsubstantiated (but glamorous) 'Organized Crime' tack. It makes for racy journalism but no scholarly research. Moreover, it serves no purpose.