April 3, 2020

Revisiting the clues of a theft: the case of the theft at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza


Sometimes it is good to go back and review old blog posts and provide updates as it is not always possible to track every case of theft when not widely publicised, and sometimes the clues left behind by one set of thieves can be useful in examining the methods of detecting criminal actors in other thefts.  Such is the case of the theft of a small panel painting "Crucifixion and Descent into Limbo" stolen from the Italian city of Faenza.

Vestibule, Maestro of Faenza Sec. XIII
"Crucifixion and descent into limbo"
35x28 cm.  + frame 15 cm., N. inv. 98
Image Credit: Pinacoteca Comunale
di Faenza
Two years ago, on Thursday morning, March 01, 2018, a small panel painting, dating back to the 1200s attributed to the Maestro of Faenza was reported stolen from the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza.  The oldest museum in the city, the museum's collection was established in 1797, when the municipality purchased the private collection of Giuseppe Zauli, much of which centered on paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 18th century.

The stolen panel painting, attributed to the Maestro of Faenza, depicts two scenes, the crucifixion of Christ with the cross in the center on the top portion of the panel followed by Christ's descent into limbo with angels and saints on the bottom.  The framed panel, which dates back to the thirteenth century, had been on public display in the Pinacoteca's Hall of the Vestibule, where it was hung just to the left of the Crocefisso del Maestro Francescano in Gallery 6. 

According to a televised report given at the time by Claudio Casadio, the director of the Pinacoteca, the theft was discovered during a morning walkthrough by personnel who discovered the empty frame and backboard mounting discarded in the gallery where the artwork had been hung.  Given the panel painting's small size, the artwork may have been hidden under the thief's winter clothing and snatched at some point during the museum's opening hours though the date of the theft itself and the potential methodology used by the criminal was not defined publicly at the time the city announced the theft.

Recovered Sant'Ambrogio
di Giusto de' Menabuoi
Sometimes in investigative work, silence is golden. 

Fast forward to just a few months later, and the Faenza artwork was recovered, found in the home of an individual in Bologna, hidden in a piece of furniture, along with two other recently stolen paintings: a Sant'Ambrogio di Giusto de' Menabuoi stolen from the Pinacoteca di Bologna just a few days after the Faenza theft and a 17th century Portrait of a Woman stolen in mid March from the Museo Civico di San Domenico in Imola.

Reconstructing the methodology of the thefts lead to the subject being identified. 

At the time of the thefts, police kept some of the clues regarding the thief's modus operandi to themselves.  The thief which targeted the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, where a work by the artist Giusto de 'Menabuoi had been removed, stole the artwork during the museum's opening hours.  Likewise, the timing of the thefts from the Museo Civico di San Domenico and the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza had strong similarities, details, investigators preferred not to disclose to protect their investigations.

During their investigations the Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Bologna, in collaboration with the Investigative Unit of the Provincial Command and with the Companies of Faenza and Imola spent time comparing and contrasting the security footage looking for clues and similarities and were subsequently able to identify a single individual in the footage with the same physiognomy, immortalised by CCTV security cameras in the museums and in the nearby civic spaces.

Shortly after the suspect's description was identified, an individual with the same distinct physical profile was identified visiting another museum in the city of  Bologna and acting suspiciously, perhaps either casing the museum for a future theft or with the intent of stealing another painting that very day.  Interrupted from his activity, law enforcement then followed the individual back through the streets of Bologna watching him until he returned to his place of residence.

With the house identified, and with the CCTV footage to back up their hunch, a search warrant was issued by the judicial authorities and the man's house was searched.  Inside, the officers recovered not only the three historic works of art, but most importantly, the incriminating clothing worn during one of the three heists.

All the artworks were returned to their respective institutions in just under two months. Not bad.  Let's hope the recent Van Gogh theft in the Netherlands at the Singer Laren Museum has an equally expedient, and happy, ending.




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