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September 28, 2020

Two Arrested for Robbery and Vandalism at Church of Sant’Agata al Collegio in Sicily

Image Credit: Associazione Gesù Nazareno - Caltanissetta

Article By: Lynette Turnblom

For the second time in under two months the Chiesa di Sant’Agata al Collegio in Caltanissetta, Sicily has been damaged by acts of vandalism and the theft of sacred objects.  On 22 September 2020, two suspicious suspects were seen walking at a fast pace away from the zone surrounding the church carrying an unusually shaped wrapped object.  Upon noting patrolling officers nearby, the pair picked up their pace, leading the city police to call for backup in order to stop them for questioning. 

Image Credit Radio CL1

The young men, later identified as Alessio Pio Raul and Giannone Salvatore, were located and stopped by the police ten minutes south of the seventeenth-century Jesuit church.  In their possession, law enforcement officers found a golden brooch, a church reliquary, a container for holy oil, and 161 euros in coins.  

Image Credit: Associazione Gesù Nazareno - Caltanissetta

Reviewing video surveillance cameras installed in the area, police were able to reconstruct the events related to the church burglary, which showed two suspects breaking in through the door of the church library, where the pair went on to ransacked an office and vending machines where they likely removed the large sum of coins they were carrying when stopped by police,  The duo then moved on to the church itself.

In addition to theft and vandalism of the music school and library, once inside the Baroque church the two thieves attacked various altar spaces, removing a chrismarium, (a ceremonial container for holy oil) and a church ciborium used to hold hosts for, and after, the Eucharist.  

Rushing to steal what they could carry, the thieves left communion host wafers scattered in their wake and heavily disrupted the church's sleeping Madonna, a memorial representation of Mary's uncorrupted body and soul representing the moment of transit from earthly life to the Assumption. 

It is from this peaceful representation of the mother of the church that the thieves filched the gold brooch, later recovered when the pair were stopped by police.  And as if that wasn't enough, the marauders had also gathered up all of the church's candlesticks, piling them in a corner, probably in order to return for them at some later time.  Thankfully, at least in this instance, following the suspects' apprehension, all of the stolen items have now been returned to the parish priest. 

Yet, as mentioned earlier, this act of theft and vandalism came less than a month after an earlier attack on the church.  The first occasion was reported on the 23rd of August.  Similar to the second theft, thieves again had entered the vulnerable church through its library vandalizing the parish and taking offering coins.  At the time of this first theft, Father Gaetano Caneletta said, “it is an offense to our faith and a serious wound to our artistic heritage.”

As shown by these two back-to-back attacks on Chiesa di Sant’Agata al Collegio in such a short time frame, churches are can be viewed as easy targets for thieves.  As Domenica Giani, the head of Vatican police has said, “Humanity’s spiritual thirst and desire to praise God have given life to works of inestimable value and to a religious patrimony that gives rise to greed and the interest of art traffickers.”

While the sacrality of churches may prevent some thieves from targeting them, the abundance of invaluable art housed within them may be too tempting a target for others.  The FBI and the Carabinieri TPC have each outlined several ways that churches can help to protect their artworks and sacred objects: 

  1. Develop an inventory This proves crucial in identifying and locating and recovering items of historic, cultural, or artistic value. The house-of-worship staff should retain a comprehensive list of all valuable church property. Detailed written records of objects should include the medium, dimensions, material, proof or artist marks, and any other similar details and should be reviewed periodically to ensure all objects are present and accounted for as not all thefts are not discovered immediately. 
  2. Establish and maintain a current and up to date photographic record: While maintaining written files of artifacts is essential, digital photography makes it easy for staff may store and, if necessary, print high-quality color photos of each item. These pictures can be extremely useful when reporting a loss to the police or notifying registries of objects stolen during a theft or burglary. Photographic records should include all sides of the object.  
  3. Marking items: Initially, it may appear impossible to mark all church related items because of composition or intrinsic value; however, contemporary options to consider for high-value objects could be the use of a forensic asset marking agent, or radio-frequency identification (RFID) which uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects sounding an alarm when objects are moved. 
  4. Insure property: Where financially feasible, office staff and clergy should review the church's casualty insurance coverage to ascertain that the property protection program includes a clause for all historic artifacts and lists particularly high-value items separately.

Maintaining a relationship with local law enforcement is also integral for church officials and can result in more rapid response time and a smoother investigation in cases of theft.  In the case of the attempted theft at Santa Maria Maddalena in Liguria in 2019 the police and the church were able to work together to replace a targeted painting by the 17th-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a copy when they received advanced intelligence of a potential theft.  Through their collaboration, the church was able to continue operating as normal without the risk of losing their €3.4 million masterpiece.  

In this recent case at Sant’Agata al Collegio, the alert police officers in Caltanissetta were able to respond quickly to the robbery and to retrieve the church's stolen objects.  Police are still investigating the involvement of possible co-conspirators including two other suspected accomplices, one male and one female, both also in their twenties. 



Arma dei Carabinieri. ‘Linee guida per la tutela dei beni culturali ecclesiastici’. Ufficio Nazionale per i beni culturali ecclesiastici:, November 2014.
Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio. ‘Caltanissetta, vandalizzata la chiesa di Sant’Agata al Collegio. Malviventi rubano anche le offerte’. Seguo News, 23 August 2020, sec. Seguo News - Notizie Caltanissetta.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. ‘Theft: A Real Threat to Religious Heritage’. Government. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7 December 2016.
Giuffrida, Angela. ‘Italian Police Reveal “€3m Painting” Stolen from Church Was a Copy’. The Guardian, 13 March 2019, sec. Art and design.
Polizia di Stato. ‘Caltanissetta, Arrestati Dalla Polizia Di Stato Due Ventenni Responsabili Del Raid Notturno Alla Chiesta Di Sant’Agata al Collegio.’ Government. Polizia di Stato, 23 September 2020.
Povoledo, Elisabetta. ‘Thieves Trying to Steal Precious Painting Get Worthless Copy’. The New York Times, 14 March 2019.
Radio CL1. ‘Arrestati Dalla Squadra Mobile Gli Autori Del Raid Nella Chiesa Di Sant’Agata’. Radio CL1, 22 September 2020.
Stewart, Nan. ‘Thieves Stole a $3.4 Million Bruegel From a Rural Italian Church—or So They Thought. Here’s How the Village Tricked Them’. Artnet News, 13 March 2019, sec. Art and Law.

September 23, 2020

Some background on Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan and Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd., charged in the SD/New York

"Beloved By Time, Four Millennia of Ancient Art"
Published by Fortuna Fine Arts (2000)

Given the United States Department of Justice announcement that the US Attorney in the Southern District of New York has issued an indictment against Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan charging them with defrauding antiquities buyers and brokers by using false provenances to offer and sell antiquities, we thought it might be worthwhile to review some of the earlier warning signs relating to this gallery and its principals, Salim Dere and his son Erdal Dere, as well as another member of the family. 

4 April 1973
A truck loaded with sand, parked on a side road in Istanbul, is discovered to contain a group of marble fragments later determined to be from the circa 170 CE sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of the Greek hero Herakles. The artefact had been found in a farmer's field near the ancient metropolis of Perge, a Roman site near Antalya.

Tracking the movements of the truck and the pieces, police pay a visit to the shop of a goldsmith named Aziz Dere. There they discover an additional five fragments from the same sarcophagus, which Aziz Dere and Boris Alexander Musseinko had purportedly purchased for around $7,700.

Aziz Dere, Selim Dere, and Faraç Üzülmez, the father of Fuat Üzülmez, a suspect Munich-based antiquities dealer, were subsequently arrested.

The remains of the sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of Herakles found in the truck and the pieces found in Aziz Dere's goldsmith's shop were sent to the archaeology museum in Istanbul.

Selim Dere is sentenced to two years in prison for antiquities smuggling in Turkey.

A few years after completing his sentence, Salim Dere migrated to New York, where he would later work in a jewelry store, and then open an antiquities gallery. Aziz Dere, believed to be his cousin, settled in Canada.

Turkish researchers identify artefacts from the same tomb as the 170 CE sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of Hercules. These are repatriated by the John Paul Getty Museum to Turkey in 1983.

Two pieces from the same tomb group were sold by the Mahboubian Gallery in the United Kingdom to a private collection in Switzerland. Other pieces were located in Kessel, West Germany.

13 June 1984
Statuette of a Man, the moon god is sold to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by Selim Dere, operating as West Side Jewelry.

As series of frieze blocks were discovered at the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in the Karacasu district of Aydın province during the 1984 excavation season.

Sometime in 1989
Three frieze blocks from the Tiberius portico are stolen from the excavation site at Aphrodisias and smuggled out of Turkey.

5 June 1989
Fortuna Fine Arts LTD is incorporated in New York.

8 September 1989
Selim Dere formally announced the grand opening of Fortuna Fine Arts in New York.

Selim Dere donates a gilt bronze Mirror cover: Venus and Adonis, circa mid–2nd century CE, accession number y1990-48 to the Princeton University Art Museum.

Mr. and Mrs. Selim Dere donate a 6th century BCE Archaic Silver Bracelet, accession number 1991.170.1 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

11 March 1993
One of the stolen frieze blocks of the Tiberius portico, depicting a garland of fruit leaves and flowers wrapping around a young male mask. is put up for sale at the Fortuna Fine Arts Gallery in New York and is identified by Aphrodisias Excavation President Professor Roland R. R. Smith, from NYU who reported his identification to the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

The Turkish authorities notify the US via a law firm representing Turkey in the US. The FBI launches an investigation.

14 April 1993
The relief head of the mythological hero Meleager, belonging to a heavy marble panel depicting a hunting scene, is stolen from the garden of the excavation house at Aphrodisias. The object's inventory number is noted as 80-134.

The relief head of the mythological hero Meleager is published in the INTERPOL newsletter for stolen art.

September 1994
New York University professor Roland R Smith spotted the relief head of the mythological hero Meleager in the window of the Fortuna Fine Arts Gallery. Smith again, promptly notified the Turkish authorities that the Meleager head relief was in the US, they in turn notified the FBI via their US attorney (Herrick).

After 1993/94 Identifications
Responding to a Turkish government request, agents from the New York FBI Art Theft group confiscate the relief head of the mythological hero Meleager and the frieze block from the Tiberius portico, depicting a garland of fruit leaves and flowers wrapping around a young male mask on sale with Fortuna Fine Arts on Madison Avenue.

At the gallery, FBI Special Agents note a mosaic showing the centaur Nessos carrying off Heracles' wife Deianira. 
Mosaic depicting Deianira and the centaur Nessos

Later, while Turkish archaeologists are comparing a photograph taken at Fortuna Galley of this mosaic, they discover by coincidence with another photo of the piece which was found in Nizip, a town near Zeugma, among the color negatives of a local photographer. The current location of this mosaic is unknown.

13 August 1994
After proving that the Aphrodisias frieze block I belonged to Turkey, the artifact was restituted in a ceremony in the US.

14 August 1994
The Aphrodisias frieze block is flown back to Turkey to become part oft he collection at the Aydın Aphrodisias Museum.

24 January 1995
After proving that the head of the mythological hero Meleager belonged to Turkey, the Turkish Culture Minister Timurcin Savas took delivery of the artefact from the United States and it was returned to Turkey.

In relation to a 2001 donation to the Cornell University's Department of Near Eastern Studies suspect Dealer Michel Van Rijn made angry claims on his website that the extensive donation of Babylonian cuneiform tablets from the 4th millennium BCE made by Jonathan Rosen were mainly sourced through Selim Dere and were imported into the United States under false customs documentation. While statements made by Van Rijn, may or may not be self-serving, this claim is worth exploring further to determine its veracity.

The source of the Garsana tablets would become the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security where it was noted that the tablets were subsequently appraised at a much higher value, a tactic often used, in making donations to museums in the US.

Selim Dere donates:
  • a Greek bronze coin, accession number 2002.228.3, to Harvard Art Museums' Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
  • a Coin of Ephesos, accession number 2002.228.2, to Harvard Art Museums' Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
  • a relief plaque depicting Nergal, god of the netherworld, circa 1800-1600 BCE, accession number 2002.228.3 to the Princeton University Art Museum.
Erdal Dere and his wife make a small financial donation to the Corning Museum of Glass.

June 2009
The owner of Fortuna Fine Arts was stopped upon arrival at John F Kennedy International Airport following a flight originating in Munich, Germany where he had stated on his entry documentation that he had nothing to declare. Despite that affirmation, a physical examination of his person and luggage uncovered three artifacts: a red intaglio stone, a Byzantine gold pendant, and a terracotta pottery fragment.

All three objects were seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the basis of 18 U.S.C. § 545 (1982) and 19 U.S.C. § 149 (authorizing penalties for failure to declare articles upon entry into the United States) and authorizing Customs agents to search and seize property imported contrary to U.S. laws).

March 2013
The intaglio and pottery fragment were examined by the Archaeological Director of the Special Superintendent, MiBACT in Rome, Italy, who determined that both objects were of Italian origin and had likely been illegally looted from an archaeological site somewhere in Italy.

30 June 2015
An Etruscan aryballos in the shape of a reclining hare is sold for £950 in London via Rome-based Bertolami Fine Arts through ACR Auctions, an online auction firm used by the Italian auction house.

29 June 2018
At the request of the Manhattan district attorney's office, the Hon. Ellen N. Biben, Administrative Judge of New York County Supreme Court, issued a seizure warrant for the Etruscan terracotta aryballos in the shape of a reclined rabbit now known to be at Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd.

22 September 2020
The Hon. Sarah Netburn - Southern District of New York sets bail for Erdal Dere at  $500,000 bond with one co-signer, secured by residence on 78th Street, with his passport retained by the court. 

Given that the federal authorities have alleged that now defect Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd. (Erdal Dere) and business associate Faisal Khan have been engaging in a years-long scheme to defraud buyers and brokers in the antiquities market by using false provenances and given that Erdal Dere is also charged with aggravated identity theft for his misappropriation of the identities of deceased collectors who were falsely represented to be the prior owners of the antiquities it might be time to drag out "Beloved By Time, Four Millennia of Ancient Art" Published by Fortuna Fine Arts (2000) and other catalogues to see what else might be interesting. 

Archaeology Magazine Archive. ‘A Plundered Past’. News, 2000.
Acar, Özgen. ‘Mosaics and Heads of Statues Plundered from Zeugma’. Culture Without Context, no. 7 (Autumn 2000).
———. ‘Zeugma Plundered Mosaics’. News. Artnet News, 29 August 2000.
Acar, Özgen, and Melik Kaylan. ‘The Turkish Connection. An Investigative Report on the Smuggling of Classical Antiquities.’ Connoisseur, October 1990.
Bertolami Fine Arts – ACR Auctions. ‘ACR Auctions - Auction 17 - Antiquities’. Auction. Bertolami Fine Arts – ACR Auctions, 30 June 2015.
Carrigan, Margaret. ‘Two Manhattan Antiquities Dealers Arrested on Charges of Fraud | The Art Newspaper’. News. The Art Newspaper, 23 September 2020.
‘Countries Demanding That Museums Return Their Antiquities’. Wilson Daily Times, 13 June 1983.
Felch, Jason. ‘Cornell to Return 10,000 Ancient Tablets to Iraq’. Los Angeles Times, 3 November 2013, sec. Entertainment & Arts.
———. ‘The Rosen Connection: Cornell Will Return 10,000 Cuneiform Tablets to Iraq’. Chasing Aphrodite (blog), 3 November 2013.
‘Fortuna Fine Arts Celebrates Gallery Grand Opening’. The Celator 3 3, no. 10 (1989).
Haberleri, Yaşam. ‘Zeugma Evine Dönüyor’. Milliyet, 17 May 2000.
Hardy, Samuel. ‘Antiquities, Drugs and Arms – Organised Crime, Intelligence Operations and Dirty Wars in Turkey and Beyond’. Conflict Antiquities (blog), 9 April 2018.
Harvard. ‘From the Harvard Art Museums’ Collections Coin of Ephesos’. Museum. Harvard Art Museums. Accessed 23 September 2020.
———. ‘From the Harvard Art Museums’ Collections Greek Coin’. Museum. Harvard Art Museums. Accessed 23 September 2020.
Lynda Albertson. ‘Seizure: An Etruscan Hare Aryballos Circa 580-560 B.C.E.’ ARCA Art Crime Blog (blog), 29 June 2018.
Michel van Rijn. ‘Michel van Rijn - Art News  -  Latest Update’, 29 April 2007.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ‘Statuette of Men, The Moon God’. Museum. ine Arts, Boston. Accessed 23 September 2020.
Özet, M. Aykut, ed. Yitik miras’ın dönüş öyküsü: değişik yollarla yurtdışında çıkarılan, iadesi sağlanan ve halen yurtdısında bulunup iadesi çalışmaları sürdürülen kültür varlıklarımız. T.C. Kültür Bakanlığı yayınları 2908. Ankara: Kültür Bakanlığı Anıtlar ve Müzeler Genel Müdürlüğü Yayını [u.a.], 2003.
Princeton University Art Museum. ‘Mirror Cover: Venus and Adonis (Y1990-48)’. Museum. Princeton University Art Museum. Accessed 23 September 2020.
———. ‘Relief Plaque Depicting Nergal, God of the Netherworld (2002-74)’. Museum. Princeton University Art Museum. Accessed 23 September 2020.
R. Lowry. ‘The Museum Sacking That Wasn’t’., 27 May 2003.
Rym Brahimi. ‘Stolen Ancient Bust to Return to Turkey’. UPI, 23 January 1995.
Smith, R. R. R., and Christopher Ratté. ‘Archaeological Research at Aphrodisias in Caria, 1994’. American Journal of Archaeology 100, no. 1 (1996): 5–33.
‘The Corning Museum of Glass Annual Report 2007’. The Corning Museum of Glass Annual Report. The Corning Museum of Glass, 2007.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Silver Bracelet, Greek, Archaic’. Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed 23 September 2020.
Thomas Maier. ‘History as an Endangered Species’. The Baltimore Sun, 29 May 1995.
U.S. Department of Justice. ‘Antiquities Dealers Arrested For Fraud Scheme’. Government. The United States Attorney’s Office - Sothern District of New York, 22 September 2020.