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September 30, 2016

May 15, 1975 - Museum Theft, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan

On the evening of February 17, 1975, twenty-eight Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art were stolen from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Milan.  In total works of art by Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the 16th century Flemish master Adrien Van Utrecht, Francoise Millet, Giovanni Fatter, Telemaco Signorini, and Giovanni Segatini were stolen.  The theft occurred despite the presence of watchmen on the premises, who were assigned to regularly patrol the museum and in theory who were required to make ten rounds of the exhibition spaces during each shift.  

To accomplish their crime criminals broke into the museum through an unalarmed first floor window.  They then mounted three flights of stairs and once in the upper Grassi Gallery proceeded to cut the artworks free of their frames, leaving them in a horrifying discarded heap. 

Van Gogh watercolour Breton Women (after Emile Bernard)
also known as Les bretonnes et le pardon de pont Aven
stolen from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna.
Stolen February 17, 1975 Recovered April 6, 1975
Stolen May 15, 1975 Recovered November 3, 1975
While no details of any arrests were announced in connection to the theft it is understood that the thieves may have demanded a hefty ransom and that this demand was most likely met. 

The works of art were conveniently recovered together on April 6, 1975, in an unoccupied sixth‐floor Milan apartment which had been registered to an alias. That apartment was later traced to Giuseppe Pennestri, an individual from Reggio Calabria living in Milan.   At the time the artworks were recovered, and given their good condition the artworks were valued by newspapers at USD $5 million.

While the Galleria d'Arte Moderna got its collection returned, by giving in and paying a thief's ransom, they encouraged further robberies.   Just three months later, on May 15, 1975, thieves struck the museum for a second time.

As if to add insult to injury, the second theft made use of the same security vulnerabilities.  Thieves entered the museum via the exact same avenue taken earlier, as if the first theft was a dress rehearsal for the second grand performance.

To break into the museum they came in over the high wall around the museum and then penetrated the building by climbing a ladder and entering through an upper floor window which had not been fitted with a burglar alarm. 

Once inside they reportedly overpowered four night watchmen.  Two were bound and gagged while making rounds and two were subsequently subdued in the Grassi Gallery where the criminals again made off with a substantial cache of paintings.

This time, even more Impressionist and Postimpressionist works of art were stolen, 38 in total. Many of the artworks stolen, including Van Gogh's watercolour Breton Women (after Emile Bernard), were the same ones taken during the previous robbery.

Perhaps because the thieves were banking on a ransom having already been paid?

One month later, on June 17, 1975, police got a break.  During an routine traffic stop, Giuseppe Pennestri was arrested by Italian authorities while driving a Mercedes with New Zealand license plates under an assumed name.  With him was a Yugoslavian also travelling with false identity papers.

Pennestri would turn out to be a truly unsavoury character, with a record that included not only masterminding the theft of the museum, possibly on both occasions, but also a rap sheet that included homicide, drug dealing, facilitating prostitution and apparent ties to organized crime

Following a joint investigation involving Interpol and the Italian and West German authorities 26 of the 38 artworks stolen were recovered on November 2, 1975. 

Italian law enforcement officials arrested one suspect in Foligno while their counterparts in Germany arrested three individuals in Duisburg, what was then West Germany.  Fifteen of the paintings were found in Italy during a raid on an apartment owned by a wealthy businessman, Settimio Bianchi. Eleven other artworks, including the works by Van Gogh and Renoir, were recovered in West Germany along with nine other stolen artworks from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna.

By Lynda Albertson