Blog Subscription via

August 29, 2023

Insider threats in museums, not as rare as you think.


Many articles discussing the recently announced thefts at the British Museum in London have emphasised the rarity of insider threats at museums.  Those in the know though, know that it happens more frequently that museums would like the public to recall.  Must instances don't get wide press circulation, as it is not in the collections' best interests to go into incidences publicly, so for the sake of not taking the lid off of too many discreet pots, we will stick to some of those already in the public realm. 

Here are nine of the more spectacular and publicly announced insider threat thefts which have occurred in museums and libraries involving internal staff in positions of trust.

In the early 90s, and over a period of 20 years, John Feller used his position as a respected porcelain scholar and researcher with access to the collections at Winterthur, Harvard Peabody, & other museum institutions to pilfer from their respective collections.  He plead guilty for stealing more than 100 valuable ceramic and glass objects worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from at least eight known museums.  Some of whose records were so poor, that after his arrest and guilty plea, had the insider thief assist law enforcement and the museums with identifying which stolen objects came from their own institutions.

Also in the 1990s, Erik Anders Burius, a senior librarian, stole at least 56 rare 17th-century books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, while employed at the National Library of Sweden. Dubbed the "Royal Library Man", Burius sold at least 13 of the books to Ketterer Kunst, a German auction house.  He committed suicide shortly after his arrest.

Keith Davies, a former soldier in the New Zealand army for 30 years, worked at the New Zealand’s National Army Museum situated in Waiouru, in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island from 1995 to 2002, after completing his military duty. 

As the museum's registrar, Davies was tasked, amongst other duties, with the storage and inventorying the museum’s medal collection, and corresponding with the families of donors.  Davies seniority and knowledge of the Museum’s systems enabled him to cover his thefts while employed at the museum, and for another eight years after his departure. He altered records and replaced medals with other similar medals, so as to maintain the illusion that sets of medals had not been broken up.  In total this museum insider is believed to have stolen some 750 medals, selling  at least 131 to buyers around the world.  270 objects were still in his possession when he was arrested in Australia in 2011. 

Over the course of several decades, between 1997 through 2012, now deceased museum director Kent Ian Bertil Wiséhn, who worked for the Royal Coin Cabinet (The National Museum of Coin, Medal and Monetary History) in Sweden is believed to have stolen some 1,200 coins from his own museum and the Gothenburg City Museum's coin vault.   He was undone when his sticky fingering was caught on CCTV footage stealing rare stamps from the auction company Philea on Södermalm in Stockholm.

In 19 May 1998 Rome's prestigious Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna was robbed just after the 10 pm closing time. Armed with guns, three thieves entered the museum in gloves and balaclavas to hide their identities.  Storming the control room, the gang gagged two of the three female guards and reportedly forced the third to disable the museum's security system, who was also ordered to hand over its accompanying CCTV footage.  All three museum employees were then locked in a bathroom. Once in the painting's gallery, the thieves bypassed paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustav Klimt and stole three specific paintings:

L'Arlésienne, 1889 (one of five versions)
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 60x50 cm
Completed in Saint-Rémy

Le Jardinier, October 1889
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm
Completed in Saint-Rémy


Cabanon de Jourdan, 1906
by Paul Cézanne
oil on canvas 65 x 81 cm
The last artwork completed by the artist before his death in Aix-en-Provence

From start to finish the art theft lasted only 15 minutes.  A complex heist, Stefania Viglongo, then head of the museums security control room, was ultimately implicated for being part of the team responsible for the thefts.  She received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment. Her husband, Alfonso Di Febio was sentenced to two years and 8 months. 

In 2003 while Alexander Polman was a curator at the Legermuseum Militaire, the Dutch Army Museum in Delft in the Netherlands, it was discovered that some books had been heavily vandalised and that other collection material were missing, including approximately 2000 prints and several paintings. Polman apparently stole most of this material by arriving earlier than the rest of his staff and secreting the materials in his car. 

On 24 May 2012 Marino Massimo de Caro was arrested for his astonishing role in the theft and embezzlement of thousands of rare volumes looted from one of Italy's oldest libraries, the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. While many of the books he pilfered have been recovered, a number of invaluable 15th and 16th Century books are still missing.

In March 2017 Denis Wilhelm was hired as a Bode Museum security guard in Berlin.  By February 2020 he had been convicted and sentenced of 40 months and  fined €100,000 for his associated role with cousins Ahmed and Wissam Remmo,  members of the Arabische Großfamilien who entered the museum island museum after closing hours.  On 27 March 2017 these two members of the Remmo clan accessed the museum's galleries through a window, and in 16 minutes broke through extremely heavy security glass case, and with the help of a strategically placed roller and wheelbarrow, carried away a giant solid gold coin, weighing 100 kilos from gallery room 243.  In finding Wilhelm an accomplice in the theft, prosecutors made a case that the newly hired security guard had fed the thieves inside information about the design of the alarm system and the timing of the guard's rounds, as well as having intentionally left the museum's window open.  Total theft loss = €3.75m (£3.3m) 

And let's not forget the still ongoing saga with Professor Dirk Obbink, who, since 2 March 2020 has been under investigation by the Thames Valley police for a complex series of thefts and sales of ancient Egyptian material belonging to The Egyptian Exploration Society. 

August 20, 2023

A London organised crime gang and a museum theft of £2 million of Chinese Porcelain

Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient

The lucrative market for stolen Chinese antiquities has led to several high-profile heists in recent years as well as a series of convictions.  In May 2022 the prosecutor's office in Geneva released the first-ever details about a daring heist committed on June 1, 2019 in the centre of Geneva.  On that date, two later identified accomplices, wearing masks and gloves, broke into the Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient, housed in an elegant, late-19th-century townhouse, by smashing a glass pane out from the front door.  The museum contains more than 9,000 Chinese and Japanese works amassed by Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951).  Once inside, the burglars, believed to be professional thieves, shattered one of the protective display cases and made off with a grouping of Chinese imperial ceramics, valued at 3,6 million francs.  

At the time of the incident, the Foundation elected, as is often the custom in the prestigious and discreet circles of art collections, to not publicly communicate the theft. 

The three stolen artefacts were recorded as:

  • A bowl valued at 80,000 pounds, 
  • An rare “Sweet White” 甜白 glazed Pomegranate bottle vase dating to the Yongle period (1400 – 1425), Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), 
  • A “doucai-style” wine cup with chicken decorations.

The primary burglary suspects in the case are subsequently determined to be two British nationals, brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) from south-east London.

In 2019, the stolen bowl, valued at 80,000 pounds, was returned to the Museum of Far Eastern Art after it was identified as having been sold at an auction in Hong Kong that same year.  By May 2020 Louis Ahearne would already be serving a five-year jail sentence for a separate residential burglary relating to a theft he carried out with Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly on 9 July 2019 at a Grade II-listed housing complex in Westerham, Kent, just one month after the museum break-in.  In that case, forensics teams detected bloodstains which provided a DNA match to Bowen.   Officers had recognised Ahearne and Kelly as two of the culprits after viewing CCTV at the time of the crime. 

In July 2020 the Metropolitan Police in London received an important tip from a yet unnamed auction house who advised them that an unknown individual had e-mailed them with knowledge of the whereabouts of a second item from the 2019 Museum of Far Eastern Art theft: the 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

To recover the rare vase, an operation was led by Trident officers in Specialist Crime, a police unit dedicated to investigating violent crime in London's communities.  Officers then traced the IP address for the email account to an address in Belmont Park Close, Lewisham which is determined to be the home of David Lamming (15.01.92).  In 2005, while still a juvenile, Lamming was given a two year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Asbo) for his involvement in gang related activities.  This order banned him from entering a central Lewisham estate, unless he has permission from the council.   

As the result of the auction house tip, officers begin a Joint Investigation Team with their Swiss counterparts so that both law enforcement agencies can share information and build a case against the suspects and successfully recover the stolen vase. 

Preserved tianbai, or “sweet white” 甜白 specimens of the Yongle reign (1403-1424) are rarer than contemporary blue-and-white Imperial porcelains and are known for their thin and translucent white glaze, which is said to mimic white jade.  Less opaque than earlier shufu wares, to achieve this look tianbai vase production required a combination of a kaolin-rich paste, which when fired at a high fusion temperature, produces a naturally bright white color with very low iron and titanium content.  Matched with a glaze containing mainly glaze stone and no glaze ash it gives objects a similar appearance to that of white jade.   

The name for this type of Chinese porcelain was coined by Huang Yizheng, a writer from the Wanli period (1573-1620) in his Shiwu ganzhu, which was written in 1591. In that missive, he refers to this unique type of glaze that was produced only from the Royal Kiln of Yongle, and attributed to the Emperor’s personal fondness for white vessels.  

To ensure the safe recovery of the rare stolen vase, officers elected to not arrest Lamming immediately, and instead worked to set up an undercover sting operation where they would pose as would-be buyers.  To recover the vase, they negotiate a purchase price of £450,000 with the London intermediaries and arranged to meet in a Mayfair hotel to conclude the transaction.

On October 15, 2021, having met with the undercover sting officers, police arrest Mbaki Leslie Nkhwa (18.10.75) of The Heights, Charlton and Lamming at the arranged central London hotel and recover the stolen 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty vase. 

Image of Mbaki Leslie Nkhwa from his Facebook Profile

After being taken into custody for questioning, officers reviewed telephone data which shows that Nkhwa and Lamming had been in regular contact with a third intermediary accomplice, Kaine Wright (30.11.96), a former West Ham United footballer from Woolwich, who had driven the pair to the hotel for the potential sale.

Nkhwa and Lamming were held on suspicion of handling stolen goods until released on bail while their court cases progressed.  Officers conducting a search of a related house in Charlton, south-east London, recover counterfeit currency, class A drugs and two suspected tasers.

By early May 2022, as the investigation progressed, the Office Fédéral de la Justice in Bern, Switzerland sent extradition requesta for brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) to the British government, having been charged with  theft, damage to property and trespassing for their alleged role in the 1 June 2019 theft from the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art. 

Evidence gathered by the London and Swiss authorities demonstrated that both Ahearnes were in Switzerland on or before June 1, 2019 and that Stewart Ahearne's DNA was allegedly found at the scene.   CCTV images had also implicated his brother, Louis Ahearne as also being at the museum at the time of the break-in. 

Subsequent to the Swiss extradition request, District judge Nina Tempia, sitting at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, ruled on 17 May 2022 that the extradition of Stewart and Louis Ahearne was not barred and that their case should be sent to the UK's Home Secretary, who then approved their extradition later that month.   It should be noted that by this period, the brothers were already facing another extradition request from Japan regarding another matter.

On March 23rd of this year David Lamming pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property in relation to his role as an accomplice to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva. Upon conviction, he remains at liberty while on bail until his sentencing date. 

On Friday, August 18th, a jury at Southwark Crown Court returned unanimous guilty verdicts for Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright in relation to their roles as an accomplices to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva.  Each were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property and ordered to remain in custody.  

From left to right: David Lamming, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright
Image Credit: Metropolitan Police

Lamming, Nkhwa, and Wright are currently scheduled to be sentenced on October 13, 2023. 

This leaves just one unrecovered object from the 2019 theft.  

Officers from London's Metropolitan Police are appealing for the public’s help in locating the third and final item stolen from the Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient in 2019 and are offering up to £10,000 for information leading to the recovery of the Ming Dynasty, "chicken" cup.

This porcelain wine-cup, made in the Ch’eng-hua Reign of the Great Ming, is decorated in doucai style with an underglaze of blue washes with two blue bands at the top and one at the bottom. The cup depicts a rooster, hen and chicks with lilies and peony shrubs behind. 

Anyone with information about its whereabouts can contact police referencing Operation Funsea or to remain anonymous contact the independent charity Crimestoppers.

August 13, 2023

Thoughts on the confessions of Cosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro during his February interrogation

A man of many "pezzini"

As mentioned in an earlier ARCA blog post this week, Matteo Messina Denaro, the former fugutive Cosa Nostra boss, was interrogated on February 13, 2023 for almost two hours at a maximum security prison in Italy.  There, the crime boss fielded many  questions, and sometimes duelled with Palermo prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia and deputy prosecutor Paolo Guido when their questions struck too close to home.   

According to the official transcript of their exchange, which covers 69 printed pages and is marked in several places with the handwritten word “omissis”, (used to mark redactions in the interrogation), the Cosa Nostra boss, curated his words carefully.  In many cases he only only incriminated himself verbally in specific areas where there was already overwhelming evidence of specific and proven actions.  In other instances, he obliquely ignored questions he didn't want to answer, while seemingly going off on tangents, as if he wanted his say on key subjects to be memorialised so that others might read and interpret his statements later. 

Speaking to the two magistrates, Messino Denaro again distanced himself from the murder of Giuseppe Di Matteo.  Repeating what he had previously told investigating Judge Alfredo Montaldo, who had questioned him in relation to another trial in which he is accused of attempted extortion.  The boss admitted to prosecutors De Lucia and Guido that he played a role in the 12 year old's kidnapping on November 23, 1993 and made it clear that seizing the child was a volley designed to coerce the father, Cosa Nostra informant Santino Di Matteo, into retracting statements given to the Anti-Mafia District Directorate (DDA) of Palermo.

Giuseppe was escorted out of horse stables in Villabate by four mafiosi dressed as policemen.  His kidnappers had promised him that they were bringing him to see his father.  Once under their control, the child was held hostage for a total of 779 days in various locations between the provinces of Palermo, Trapani, and Agrigento.  

Ironically, at one point the boy was taken, hooded and locked in the trunk of a car, to a farmhouse in Campobello di Mazara, the same village where Messina Denaro was  found to be hiding at the time of his January 16, 2023 capture.  After years as a hostage, and increasingly becoming a liability to his captors, Giuseppe was strangled to death on January 11, 1996 in the Giambascio countryside outside Palermo. His body was then dissolved in acid. 

Matteo Messina Denaro was involved in the massacres of 1993,
including this one in Florence in via Georgofili

In July of this year, the Caltanissetta court of appeal confirmed Matteo Messina Denaro's life sentence for his role in dozens of murders including Giuseppe's.  The others include: 

  • The May 23, 1992 bombing which killed anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three officers of their police escort as their cars passed near the small town of Capaci; 
  • The July 19, 1992 bombing in Via Mariano D'Amelio (Palermo) which killed Judge Paolo Borsellino and five members of his security detail; 
  • The 1993 bombings carried out at art and religious sites in Milan, Florence and Rome that killed 10 people and injured 40 others: 

During his interrogation Matteo Messina Denaro denied being involved in the trafficking in drugs, but openly admitted to prosecutors other things they already knew and had confirmed, such as having regularly passed pizzinu (small piece of paper, containing sometimes coded messages) with convicted Cosa Nostra “boss of bosses” Bernardo Provenzano, who once headed the Mafia's powerful Clan dei Corleonesi. 

In these messages, sent while both men were already fugitives from justice, Messina Denaro admitted that the pair asked one another for favours, but his admission of his relation with Provenzano during this interrogation wasn't revelatory.  Investigators already had undeniable proof of the pair's communication in the form of ten pizzini, sent between 2003 and 2006, which agents had recovered in Provenzano's hideout when he was captured in Montagna dei Cavalli near Corleone on April 11, 2006. 

The Farm Hideout of Bernardo Provenzano

One of those messages is practically a testament of fealty by Messina Denaro to Provenzano and spoke with deference to the crime boss saying:

"Lei è sempre nel mio cuore e nei miei pensieri, se ha bisogno di qualcosa da me è superfluo dire che sono a sua completa disposizione e sempre lo sarò. La prego di stare sempre molto attento, le voglio troppo bene".  

In another, writing as his nephew "Alessio," Messina Denaro wrote to his Uncle Bernardo saying:

"I know the rules and I respect them, the proof that I know the rules and that I'm respecting lies precisely in the fact that I'm turning to you to fix this unpleasant affair, this for me is respecting the rules.  You tells me that money in life isn't everything and that there are good things that money doesn't can buy. I totally agree with you, because I have always thought that one can be a man without a lira and one can be full of money and be mud." 

Offering both a mundane and fascinating image of himself on the lam, a substantial part of the Corleonese godfather's interrogation statements focus on the time period in his life immediately leading up to his capture.  Perhaps because by this period he understood that the clock was ticking and understanding that a) he couldn't hide forever and b) he needed help from others given his declining health.  

Some of his statements appear to be attempts to exonerate some of those individuals, who have been arrested on suspicion of having helped the Cosa Nostra boss during his illness, including statements in defence of Doctor Alfonso Tumbarello, whom Messina Denaro told the magistrates: 

"knows nothing."

Other individuals close to the boos faired less well during the Messina Denaro's ramblings.  

When speaking about undergoing medical care in Palermo under the false name of Andrea Bonafede, as an outpatient at the multi-specilaity hospital La Maddalena, Messina Denaro described several of the steps he needed in order to obtain false identity documents, knowing that he could not undergo chemotherapy and medical treatment in the state's medical institution directly under his own name. 

In this part of the interview Messina Denaro stated:

"I had a friendship with Andrea Bonafede, but a remote friendship because his father worked for us, for my father and then my father was a friend of his uncle, he had a another uncle suspected mafia convicted of mafia".

Investigators contend that in addition to lending his name, Bonafede received 20,000 euros from the Matteo Messina Denaro to buy a house in western Sicily that would serve as one of the fugitive's hideouts.

Messina Denaro also told the magistrates about a second assumed identity, used in the city of Campobello di Mazara, the Sicilian town that sheltered him.  Here he was known under the pseudonym “Francesco”, a Palermitan man who purportedly relocated from the city to the smaller town while caring for his ailing mother and two elderly aunts.  

Living dual identities while hiding in plain site within the Campobello community, Messina Denaro also admitted that in addition to travelling back and forth to the Palermo hospital for treatment, either alone or with an escort, he had openly visited Campobello's bakeries, greengrocers, and supermarkets.  He also played poker and eat in  local restaurants. Again, nothing extremely revelatory, as receipts and objects found in his hiding places confirm some of the his admitted activities. 

What is more of interest to readers of ARCA's Art Crime blog were the from-the-horse's-mouth affirmations made during this hour and forty minute interrogation that confirm directly from the source that Matteo Messina Denaro's family, and that of his father, Francesco Messina Denaro, capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region, sustained their livelihoods, to some extent, by the proceeds of antiquities crimes.

Messina Denaro's verbal admissions concretise a written statement previously attributed to him, which was already mentioned in an article published in 2009 by Rino Giacalone for Antimafia Duemila.  In that article, the journalist refers to an intercepted "pizzini" written by Messina Denaro where the crime boss wrote almost word for word, what he admitted to during this interrogation.  

"With the trafficking of works of art we support our family."

Francesco Messina Denaro as readers of ARCA's blog may recall was already 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. 

Matteo Messina Denaro was verbose when speaking to his dead father's and the family's involvement in the illicit antiquities trade.  He also mentions that his family bought from everyone and laundered antiquities illegally removed from Sicily via Switzerland, in an enterprise which supporting some 30 members of his family, including some who were incarcerated and others like himself who were on the run.  But the boss was far more laconic when asked directly if he knew Castelvetrano ancient art dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  In response to the PM's query in this regard, he answered: 

"lo conosco perché è un paesano mio, a prescindere, anche senza i beni... i pezzi archeologici, lo conosco lo stesso,  perché siamo paesani."

In October 2018, 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, dismissed the charge of mafia association against Becchina citing in her decision that the accusations used for the basis of the charge, made originally via testimonies given by verbose mafia defector Vincenzo Calcara, had been deemed "unreliable". 

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

Matteo Messina Denaro's statements during his February interrogation however confirm that a network of criminals funnelled numerous illicit antiquities from Sicily through the art market in Switzerland, which flowed onward, into world museums.  But the mafia boss stopped short however, on confirming, by name, whose hands, these works of ancient art passed through. 

Like Provenzano before him, Matteo Messina Denaro, at least for now, seems to be determined to be his own custodian of many secrets, especially those which might openly implicate living individuals, who have direct or indirect relationships with the Cosa boss and result in their arrest and/or convictions.  Facing a terminal illness, Messina Denaro's statements are well-guarded, and for the most part his scant confessions during the interrogation seem wholly performative.  

Like so many mobsters before him, it seems that he plans to carry most of the Cosa Nostra's bloody business dealings with him to his grave. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 10, 2023

So one particular (Sicilian) looting "mafia" was actually a Mafia.

Interrogated by Palermo prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia and deputy prosecutor Paolo Guido, shortly after his January 16th arrest by the Carabinieri del RosCosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro, A.K.A. "Diabolik", had a lot to say about the source of his family's wealth during his 30 years on the run.   

Filed by the Court's yesterday, the kingpin's first formal judicial interrogation after his arrest took place on February 13, 2023.  In the official transcript of this exchange, which covers 69 pages, some heavily marked with redactions, we learn interesting details regarding some of the 62 year old mafioso's conversations and admissions, both given and made during his hour and forty minute interrogation with the Court's magistrates last winter. 

In some of his documented statements, Matteo Messina Denaro appears to have been extremely blunt about what he was willing to admit to and what he was not, regarding critical aspects of his criminal life and life on the run, stating:

"Listen, there will be things I don't answer, things I answer and I'll explain why I'm answering, and things I'll explain why I don't want to answer ” , while “ if I'm lying and it's obvious that I'm lying, let me pass, it means that I do not want to answer."

During his interrogation, the crime boss, denied to prosecutors that he had ever profited from drug trafficking or that he had any involvement in the more than 50 murders of which he has already been convicted.  This despite the fact that in 2012, while still a fugitive at large, Matteo Messina Denaro was one of five people sentenced to life imprisonment, in part, for his role in the kidnap, torture, and murder of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo. 

Di Matteo was the son of a mafia turncoat.  Held in captivity for 25 months before his murder,  according to Messina Denaro's reconstruction, he was just the instigator of the kidnapping of the child, and not responsible for his murder, though he admitted. "Listen, I'm not a saint..."

Denying that he was a Made Man, (a fully initiated member of the Mafia) Messina Denaro stated: "I feel like a man of honour but not as a mafioso. I know Cosa Nostra from the newspapers".   He also told the magistrates that he had evaded capture until January, in part by steering clear of technology because he saw its usage as a vulnerability, though this would become part of his undoing as his health worsened and he required the use of a mobile phone to stay in contact with the medical community. 

When discussing his life as a fugitive, using the name of Andrea Bonafede while hiding in plane sight in Campobello di Mazara, Massino Denaro told his judicial  interrogators that they had only captured him because he had been struck down with liver cancer and that this health related crisis required him to undergoing medical treatment at La Maddalena clinic.  Describing how he had been able to stay under the radar, he rationalised: 

"I followed an old Jewish saying, 'If you want to hide a tree, plant it in a forest."

But with worsening health, planting himself in the heart of the town while undergoing cancer therapies made the boss more visible. When asked about those who helped him remain hidden and with whom he had interacted while hiding in the Sicilian town, Denaro added "if you have to arrest all the people who had something to do with me in Campobello, I think you have to arrest two to three thousand people: that's what it's all about".

But while the Cosa Nostra boss denied his violent and drug-related crimes, during his interrogation he openly claimed that the Messino Denaro family supported itself through the buying and selling illicit artefacts, many of which were plundered from Selinunte, the rich and extensive ancient Greek city of Magna Graecia located in the territory of his home town of Castelvetrano, in southwest Sicily.

He told prosecutors that his father, Francesco Messina Denaro was an art dealer.  When asked if his father was a man of honor in the mafia sense he told the magistrates that he never asked him that question, then underscored "I hope that he had been, at least his life would have had meaning". 

Known as "Don Ciccio," Matteo Messina Denaro's father died as a fugitive, having been identified as the mafia boss who headed the Castelvetrano family from 1981 until 1998.  His father was a close ally to the Corleone faction loyalists led by Salvatore "Totò" Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.

Speaking further about his father's illicit ancient art involvement Messina Denaro was documented as admitting:

"My father didn't go digging in Selinunte though. At that time there were a thousand people and all of them, even the women, they dug at night. Those who didn't dig at night, dug during the day with the Superintendency of the State, but what else did they do (now maybe it can't be done anymore), that when with the axe they saw something coming out with their foot they covered it up and then at night they went back to it take it. 

In general, my father bought 100% of these things which were then sold in Switzerland and then arrived from Switzerland everywhere in Arabia in the United Arab Emirates, in America. We used to see things that passed through my father's in American museums, I don't know how they got there in museums but then it all started from Switzerland"

The crime boss also spoke knowledgeably about workshops of counterfeiters in Sicily, involved in the enhancement of Greek polychrome vases dug up by tomb-robbers who plundered the Hellenistic necropolis of Centuripe.  He explained to the Court's prosecutors that looters working in and around the province of Enna were known to add forged figural imagery to undecorated ancient vases, reburying them for several years in order to age their augmentation so that the terracotta vases brought higher prices when sold onward on the black market.  

Using a lekythos (a type of ancient Greek vessel used for storing oil) as his example, the Mafia boss stated that an ancient vase without a figure might be worth 2 to 3 million lire, while the object's value rose to 20-30 million or 40 million when the artefact depicted embellished imagery that passed as part of the original vase maker's artistry.   Messina Denaro also told the magistrates that in 1978 he found an ancient vase full of coins and spoke in a semi-informed way about how looters discovered and sold some of the ancient material in circulation via the Messino Denaro clan. 

He told the magistrates that silver coins could be found using metal detectors when coins were scattered on the ground but that finding vases required grave-robbers.  He also added that these graves also on occasion contained hoards of coins, often in excellent condition, having been buried with the tomb's occupants. 

He told the magistrates that his father had purchased seven such hoards, while an 8th was traded directly to dealers in Switzerland by the hoard's finder.  Messina Denaro admitted that in one such case, his father paid for one hoard of silver coins in instalments, as he didn't have the 800 million lire in his pocket that the finder was asking for the haul.  To obtain this grouping of coins, Francesco Messina Denaro wrote the seller a check for the entire amount, which was held as a guarantee by the finder and then torn up once the negotiated asking price had been paid in full. He stated that his father then broke up the hoard, selling it off piecemeal. 

While portions of Matteo Messina Denaro's interview imply that his life on the lam was financed by his father's illicit antiquities trade, rather than his own more serious and violent crimes, the unredacted portion of the interrogation does not appear to identify the Swiss-based receiver of the Cosa Nostra's looted ancient material which was laundered via Switzerland before ending up in museums.

Readers of ARCA's blog can make an educated guess who at least one of those traffickers might be, but we will have to wait to see what other reports come out in the days, weeks, and years to come.  One thing is for sure, the crime boss has ruled out repenting and in agreeing to answer questions, only admitted to what he could not deny. 

Suffering from cancer, Matteo Messina Denaro has remained under treatment in an Italian penitentiary since the day of his arrest where a room for chemotherapy has been set up for his required cancer treatment.  Several hours before a scheduled surgery, on August 8th he was transferred from prison to the San Salvatore hospital in L’Aquila, amidst tight security measures related to the 41bis regime where he was operated on for an obstruction “not closely related to cancer.”  According to the guarantor of prisoners in Abruzzo, Gianmarco Cifaldi the mafia boss is currently in intensive care as a standard precaution. 

Messina Denaro's defense council recently argued that his health conditions are not compatible with Italian law, Article 41-bis of the Prison Administration Act, also known as carcere duro ("hard prison regime"), arguing that he requires medical assistance 24 hours a day.  Cifaldi, however, reiterated that the right to health is already guaranteed through the use of qualified medical personnel, and that all state agencies are operating in compliance with the Italian Constitution.

Currently Article 41-bis of the Prison Administration Act is applied to people imprisoned for crimes such as mafia-type association under 416-bis (Associazione di tipo mafioso), drug trafficking, homicide, aggravated robbery and extortion, kidnapping, terrorism, and attempting to subvert the constitutional system. It is suspended only when a prisoner co-operates with the authorities, when a court annuls it, or when a prisoner dies.

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 1, 2023

Harlan Crow, the recently restituted Plannck I Columbus letter incunabulum

In mid July, those following restitution news might have read about the United States and Italian authorities happily announcing the restitution of a stolen 15th-century letter written by Christopher Columbus.  Most of the many news articles which covered this particular restitution, were fairly pro forma.  They focused on the historic significance of this precious incunabulum, written by the controversial Italian explorer in 1493 upon returning from his first voyage to the so called "New World".  In his epistolary announcement, Columbus described his momentous journey to his royal patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who financed his expedition.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus 
By Ridolfo Ghirlandaio

While the series of news articles discussed that the document had been stolen before 1988, from the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, most were written in a perfunctory way, with many simply echoing the spartan details regarding the historical significance of this document, alongside the object's circulation as outlined in the US government's July 2023 announcement, ie., that the stolen document had been found in "the collection of a privately owned library located in the United States" after having been purchased via "a rare book dealer in the United States."

Why government press announcements on the restitution of historic artefacts can be rather "vanilla".  

Normally the investigative agency announcing a restitution begins by describing why the painting or artefact is significant, and when and/or where it has been stolen.  Press announcements then move on to state when, or sometimes how, the object in question has been identified, and then might, or might not, mention who the buyer or seller were.  Usually at the conclusion of these briefs, the announcement wraps things up by thanking key individual investigators and the agencies involved, wrapping things up by naming all of the ceremonial VIPs who would have been present during the handover ceremony.

But as participants of ARCA's PG Certification Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection learn during their studies with us.  Sometimes these types of press statements leave us asking more questions than are answered.  One question being, why are these announcements intentionally vague. 

The writers of these briefings may choose to say less, as saying more might inadvertently impact other ongoing investigations. Other times, the agreed-upon press statement skims over the nominal information involving the handlers of the object for privacy considerations, or when the return is of a voluntary vs. criminal forfeiture.  

Names can also be left out when the collector or museum who previously held ownership of the artefact or artwork has consented to its seizure and civil forfeiture, but has insisted on confidentiality provisions as part of their agreed-upon settlement whereby they relinquish all rights and titles. In tandem, sometimes these settlements can carry stipulations which clearly state that by relinquishing said object, doing so in no way should be deemed as an admission of culpability, liability, or guilt. 

But what if you want to know more? And why we teach our researchers that OSINT gathering is a useful tradecraft, not reserved for the sneaky world of spies.  

One of the things ARCA strives to impart to its art crime trainees is the need to explore and research beyond what seems obvious.  To look beyond the low hanging fruit of a happy, but perfunctory, going home press release to what you might be able to find and interpret from unrelated sources.  This is useful for provenance researchers as knowing more about an object's handlers can (sometime) tell us more about other artworks or artefacts which should also be explored. 

To advance their provenance research skills, we teach our trainees how to conduct structured intelligence analysis, using a variety of techniques to efficiently gather and utilise the wealth of information readily accessible from disparate news sites, academic articles, blog posts, social media sites, search engine result pages (SERPs), and other public-facing digital assets.  We do so because true OSINT is more than just taking a stab at scrolling-through the first page of ranked Google hits. 

The European Commission defines open-source intelligence (OSINT) as the practice of collecting and analysing information gathered from open sources to produce actionable intelligence

At ARCA we provide our participants with opportunities to test their abilities in practical and advanced image and video analysis and verification, as well as fact-checking and analysis of information, disinformation, and misinformation.  These types of intelligence gathering can support, for example, national security, law enforcement investigations and even due diligence when vetting potential art and artefact purchases.  At its very core, OSINT investigations look for open (source) data which was created for one purpose but when combined with other data, shed's additional or unforeseen light on otherwise hidden topics. 

To illustrate how our researchers can glean more details on an object's circulation within the art, antiquities, and rare book market utilising only open source techniques, last month we had them start with the clues found in the July 18, 2023 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announcement on the restitution of the  Columbus letter titled Epistola de insulis nuper inventis, Rome, Stephan Plannck, after 29 April 1493, Goff C-757 

I asked our researchers to explore a rudimentary hypothesis of whether this object's handlers might or might not be problematic art market actors and to back that up with their explorations.  I also asked them to try and explore who the collector might be who discreetly relinquished the Columbus document, and was he (or she) of the ilk known to satisfactorily vet potential acquisitions such as this historic document.

We started by documenting the July 2023 HSI-ICE announcement which featuring Special Agent Mark Olexa, who served as the lead case agent in this ten+ year investigation into the thefts of several historic incunabula stolen from Italy. 

His post appeared on Twitter on July 18th. 

In this video we see footage of the what has come to be referred to as a Columbus Plannck I incunabulum, included the screen shot captured below.  Pay attention to the annotations marked in red, as these will provide confirmations that we will come back to later. 

We then looked for earlier mentions of any Columbus letter, 1493, Plannck I.  Searching also for Plannck II, Cristoforo Colombo, rubata, Biblioteca Marciana, incunabolo, and so forth. 

"In or around May 2003, INDIVIDUAL purchased the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana's Columbus Letter-Plannck I from a rare book dealer in the United States for a sum of money."

A later United States Attorney's Office for the District of Delaware press release, dated January 22, 2020, states that this Plannck I edition of the Columbus letter has been valued in excess of $1,300,000, and is an exceptionally rare first edition that only mentions the King of Spain, while the second edition, commonly known as Plannck II, acknowledges both King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.   This press release speaks to the good faith purchase of the document by the collector, stating:

"a collector acting in good faith unknowingly purchased the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana’s Columbus Letter-Plannck I letter from a rare book dealer in the United States."

Also useful, Italian newspaper Corriere del Veneto geolocates the collector's home when describing where the Columbus document was discovered: 

 The key phrase being "in the house of a Dallas collector." 

Added to our earlier data of the document being found in "the collection of a privately owned librarywe now can assume, if the Italian article is accurate, that the collector maintains a private library, in a home, located in the city of Dallas.

An excellent article by Nicholas Schmidle published on December 8, 2013 in The New Yorker gives us a pretty thorough rundown of Richard Lan, of Martayan Lan Inc., in New York City, who sold at least Christopher Columbus incunabulum in and around this same period. Talking about Lan's controversial relationship with notorious Italian book thief and forger Massimo Marino De Caro, writing 

"Despite these incidents, De Caro’s rise in the rare-book market continued largely unimpeded, as he obtained one remarkable book after another. Perhaps his most important client was Richard Lan. De Caro told me, “He was paying a high price for books, and he had the best customers in the world.” In 2004, Lan paid two hundred and forty thousand dollars for two of the Vatican books—first editions of Galileo’s “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences” and “The Assayer”—and a 1611 copy of Johannes Kepler’s “Refraction.” Around this time, Lan also paid De Caro five hundred and eighty thousand dollars for a copy of the letter that Christopher Columbus sent to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1493, announcing the discovery of the New World. De Caro was beginning to think that Lan would buy anything from him."

In May 2012, De Caro, the former director of the Girolamini Library in Naples, was sentenced in Italy to 7 years imprisonment and a lifetime exclusion from public office following an expedited trial in Italy for the embezzlement of hundreds of stolen volumes from the Girolamini Library in Naples as well as thefts and forgeries impacting other libraries throughout Italy. 

Given that a Columbus incunabulum, stolen from the Vatican Library had already been identified as sold by De Caro to a New York dealer who turned out to be Richard Lan, then on to collector Robert David Parsons, an actuary from Atlanta, the anonymously described book seller involved, who is now deceased, becomes more interesting. 

But what about the Texas collector with a private library in him Dallas home?

Further exploration turns up several articles describing the expansive, and sometimes controversial, art and historical documents collection of Harlan Crow, a conservative billionaire, who recently gained unwanted attention for having been the secret benefactor of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Many articles refer to his ownership of an unique Christopher Columbus letter, but none of them, that we reviewed, provided imagery for comparison purposes.  

In one article, posted to the website InCollect discussing some of Crow's extraordinary pieces, we find another important clue, as the website describes the Texan's rare Columbus incunabulum as follows:

Given that the Harlan Crow Library copy is reported (and not proven) to be the sole extant Latin Stephan (Stephanus) Plannck (Planck) quarto written “To the Most Invincible King of the Spains” [Ad Inuictissimum Regem Hispaniarum] listed as being in private hands, our next step was to confirm through OSINT means, if it was  possible, that the one described and depicted in various restitution announcements could be the same document reported as being part of Crow's private collection in Dallas. 

Circling back to our screen grab from the HSI- ICE restitution tweet, we already had clear, high resolution images of the object which had been returned to the Italian authorities.  Now we just need to see if we could find an available image of the Columbus letter which was part of Crow's collection.  

Retrieving a 2019 web page, hosted by the Bullock Texas State History Museum, we were able to document, through images, exactly what Harlan Crow's Columbus incunabulum looks like.  In a comparison of the two, we can see that both the HSI-ICE image and the museum's photos of Crow's incunabulum both have matching traits, including a unique blue binding and slight page blemishes visible on two of the respective folio leaves.

Likewise a video presented of the object's return home published on Youtube also shows similarities in the fading of the ink's patterns.

Through this exercise, we can demonstrate that taking the time to scratch a bit beneath the surface of press announcements, and then systematically collecting analysing, and interpreting publicly available information from a wide array of sources, we can begin to further explore some interesting puzzle pieces.  Ones that might lead to an interesting thread or two worth pulling regarding how many other suspect manuscripts and rare books, stolen by De Caro, were purchased by Richard Lan, and in turn, did Lan sell other material to Harlan Crow, or others which can be traced back to thefts traceable to Massimo Messina De Caro's crime spree, or might still be in circulation in the rare text and manuscripts market in the United States.  

By:  Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art

OSINT Bibliography

‘A Look at Harlan Crow, the Billionaire Central in Clarence Thomas Controversies’. All Things Considered. NPR, 4 May 2023.
ANSA. ‘Sangiuliano, Torna l’incunabolo Di Colombo, Faremo Grande Mostra’. Accessed 30 July 2023.
Archaeology Magazine. ‘Historic Columbus Letter Will Return to Italy’. 28 January 2020.
Bullock Texas State History Museum. ‘Epistola Christofori Colom’. Bullock Texas State History Museum. Accessed 22 July 2023.
Bullock Texas State History Museum. ‘Epistola Christofori Colom | Bullock Texas State History Museum’. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Burnett, Elena, Ashley Brown, and Juana Summers. ‘A Look at Harlan Crow, the Billionaire Central in Clarence Thomas Controversies’. NPR, 4 May 2023, sec. Law.
‘Columbus Reports on His First Voyage, 1493 | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’. Accessed 31 July 2023.
Dallas News. ‘Harlan Crow Drops Plan to Rezone Home for Future Museum’. 3 March 2014, sec. News.
Eliasoph, Philip. ‘American Pantheon: A Neo-Georgian Estate Honors National Heritage’. InCollect. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Finestre Sull Arte. ‘Torna in Italia una preziosa lettera con cui Colombo annunciava la scoperta dell’America’. Accessed 19 July 2023.
Greene, Mariana. ‘History Abounds inside Harlan Crow’s Home’. Dallas Morning News, 7 April 2023, sec. Arts & Entertainment.
Homeland Security Investigations [@HSI_HQ]. ‘For over Ten Years, #HSI Has Collaborated with International Partners to Investigate a Rare Stolen 15th Century Christopher Columbus Letter.’ Tweet. Twitter, 18 July 2023.
ILAB - EN. ‘The Girolamini Thefts - Marino Massimo de Caro Sentenced to 7 Years Imprisonment’, 17 March 2013.
‘January - February 2008 Texas Institute of Letters Newsletter’. Texas Institute of Letters, January 2008.
La Prova, Emanuele. ‘Torna in Italia La Lettera Con Cui Colombo Annunciò La Scoperta Dell’America’. La Voce Di New York (blog), 19 July 2023.
People Newspapers. ‘Harlan Crow’s House Is Filled With History’, 2 April 2014.
Povoledo, Elisabetta. ‘Vatican Gets Back Stolen Columbus Letter, but Case Remains a Whodunit’. The New York Times, 15 June 2018, sec. World.
Prejean, Jeanne. ‘Post Genesis Luncheon Reception At OMG Library Was Something To Crow About With Condi’. My Sweet Charity (blog), 14 May 2010.
Price, Courtney. ‘Christopher Columbus Manuscript Harlan Crow Collection’. Courtney Price (blog), 13 April 2014.
Schmidle, Nicholas. ‘A Very Rare Book’. The New Yorker, 8 December 2013.
Stevens, Alexis. ‘Historic Vatican Letter Turns up in Atlanta’, 15 June 2018.
United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware. ‘Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE Recover Fourth - and Most Rare - Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter On Behalf Of The Government Of Italy’. United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, 23 January 2020.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ‘HSI Repatriates Rare 15th Century Columbus Letter to Italy’. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Weiss, David C. Stipulation and Order IN RE: Columbus, Christopher, Epistola de Insulis Nuper Inventis, Case No. 20- ROME, Stephan Plannck, after 29 April 1493, Goff C-757 (United States District Court, District of Delaware 14 November 2019).
Wisconsin Public Radio. ‘A Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter Found in Delaware Returns to Italy Decades Later’. Wisconsin Public Radio, 21 July 2023.
World Affairs Councils of America - Dallas Fort Worth. ‘Global Young Leaders’, 8 May 2021.