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January 27, 2024

Italy Takes Action: Preventive Seizure Decree Targets Stolen Books from Girolamini Library and a list of Hot Texts

Italy's Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Court of Naples, has announced a significant move in the pursuit of justice for its stolen textual treasures. A preventive seizure decree has been issued in early 2024 highlighting 361 important texts, carefully selected from those known to have been pilfered from the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini and which have not (yet) been recovered. 

Objective of the Seizure:

The decree, the execution of which is left to the Naples unit of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, aims to locate and seize rare Girolamini texts wherever they may be. This effort also extends to encouraging the spontaneous restitution of stolen editions by current holders who might be unaware of the illicit origin of specific titles they may have inadvertently purchased but known to have been stolen from the library.

Background of the Library:

The extraordinary Girolamini Library of Naples is home to almost 160,000 ancient manuscripts and books and opened its doors to the public in 1586.  Built alongside the Church and Convent of the Girolamini, the library served as the convent’s Oratory and is believed to be one of the richest libraries in Southern Italy.

The collection, which includes many rare editions dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is centred on Christian theology, philosophy, sacred music, and the history of Europe and the Catholic Church.  After the massive Irpinia earthquake, which struck Campania in 1980 the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini was closed for an extended period.  The library's collection, off limit to anyone except specific scholars with collection permissions, suffered from a lengthy period of neglect, only to be plundered by a network of individuals tasked with its very protection.

Details on the thefts:

In April 2012 it was discovered that as many as 1500 important texts were missing from the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. At the epicenter of the scandal was the library's appointed director, Marino Massimo de Caro, who was swiftly suspended and subsequently prosecuted for embezzlement.  Alongside him, other accomplices from Italy, Argentina, and the Ukraine would also be implicated and later prosecuted as a result of the scandal.

On 19 April 2012 the Biblioteca de Girolamini was formally impounded by the judicial authorities as Naples prosecutor, Giovanni Melillo oversaw an investigation into the library's thefts.  As part of this investigation, the prosecutor authorised the tapping of De Caro's phone, through which Melillo and investigators learned that the library's former director had been stashing looted books in his home, in a storage unit in Verona, and in the basement of an accomplice’s aunt as well as arranging to sell many others onward.   

Some stolen volumes were fenced through major Italian dealers as well as private collectors. An additional 543 books travelled on to Germany where they were to be auctioned on May 9, 2012 at the Bavarian auction house Zisska & Schauer in Munich after accomplices to the Girolamini library thefts stripped the institution's markings from the titles to be auctioned. 

While under questioning, De Caro would claim that the books sent to Munich were from his own personal collection.  Despite this, investigations determined that many of the consigned texts in fact came from both the Girolamini Library and the priests’ convent library and that the auction house Zisska & Schauer had paid an emissary of De Caro’s nine hundred thousand euros in advance of the texts' auction date, with De Caro expecting to receive a million euros more after the bidding closed.

With requests for assistance in hand, the German authorities halted the sale at Zisska & Schauer, and later arrested the company’s executive director, Herbert Schauer.

Ultimately, De Caro was sentenced to seven years in prison, coupled with a lifetime ban from holding public office. His expedited trial focused on the embezzlement of hundreds of volumes from the Girolamini Library, although De Caro has been connected to thefts from additional targeted institutions. 

Other defendants, including Viktoriya Pavlovsky, Alejandro Cabello, Mirko Camuri, Lorena Paola Weigandt, Federico Roncoletti, and Herbert Schauer also faced legal consequences, with varying prison terms and exclusions from public office. Viktoriya Pavlovsky, De Caro's young assistant, received a sixty-four-month prison term and permanent exclusion from public office, Alejandro Cabello and Mirko Camuri, described in the press as bodyguards, were both sentenced to fifty-six months in prison.  Lorena Paola Weigandt, who loaded stolen books from the library into the car and took them to Verona and another Verona resident, Federico Roncoletti each received sentences of thirty-two months in prison. 

Herbert Schauer was arrested by German authorities on 2 August 2013, following the execution of a European arrest warrant. He was subsequently sentenced in the first degree by the Court of Naples to 5 years of imprisonment for his involvement in receiving stolen property,  however his sentence was overturned by the Italian Court of Cassation.

Call for Collaboration:

ARCA would like to remind book and manuscript collectors that the market for archival literary heritage might be a niche market but it is a flourishing one that often overlaps with fine art crimes, driven by the high prices some collectors are willing to pay for the rarest of publications.  

Acknowledging that some good faith purchases may be in possession of these stolen items without knowledge of their illicit origin, the Italian authorities are now stressing the need for help from the general public, as well as antiquarian book dealers, and professionals worldwide who are more likely to come in contact with the library's rare material. 

In furtherance to this, the Italian Ministry of Culture has released a 31-page list of the most important stolen texts documented as having been stolen which are known to have been circulated at some point after their theft in Naples.  This list can be reviewed here.

Please note that this newly released listing does not appear to be uploaded to ILAB's stolen book database which is often the first place most book collectors turn to when checking the legal status of books, manuscripts, and maps that have been the subject of thefts which have occurred from June 15, 2010 onward.  

Given these items have not been uploaded to this database, the linked list should be downloaded so that buyers can check for themselves to see if a text they have been offered or purchased has been documented as stolen from the Naples library.  

January 25, 2024

New Convictions and Sentences in the Geneva Museum Heist Saga

May 31, 2019: Prelude to the Heist

The account of the Geneva Museum Heist begins on May 31, 2019, when British national Stewart Ahearne takes a British Airways flight from London City Airport to Geneva, setting the stage for the subsequent burglary the following night at Fondation Baur's Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient.  The museum contains more than 9,000 Chinese and Japanese works amassed by Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951).  Records indicate that he also rented a Renault SUV, which matched the description of the vehicle captured outside the museum at the time of the burglary. 

June 1, 2019 - The Heist Unfolds:

On the evening of June 1, 2019, brothers Stewart and Louis Ahearne, alongside a later publically identified third individual executed a planned break-in at the late-19th-century townhouse. Wearing masks and gloves, they employed a saw and crowbar to breach the Fondation Baur's Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient's glass-panelled front door.

Once inside, the burglars, performing with the speed of 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.  

In and out in less than five minutes, the burglars exited the way they entered and in haste, Stewart Ahearne left behind traces of his DNA.  His brother, Louis Ahearne,  was clearly captured on CCTV footage as was the Renault SUV. 

At the time of the burglary, the Foundation elected, as is often the custom in the prestigious and discreet circles of art collections, to not publicly communicate the theft to allow law enforcement to work the investigation. 

The three stolen artefacts were recorded as:

  • A bowl valued at 80,000 GBP.
  • 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.

Post-Heist Activities (2019):

Shortly after the raid, the Ahearne brothers traveled to Hong Kong, where Louis Ahearne consigned the stolen bowl through China Guardian (HK) Auctions Co., Ltd. where it sold for for HK$236,000 (£23,800).  Later that same year, having been identified, this bowl will be returned to the Museum.

Parallel Criminal Activities (2019-2020):

Louis Ahearne is sentenced to a five-year prison sentence on 26 May 2020 for a different burglary, carried out on 9 July 2019 just one month after the Geneva museum heist.  In this event,  Ahearne and two accomplices, Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly, broke into a Grade II-listed housing complex in Westerham, Kent posing as police officers to get into the gated communit off Emmetts Lane and using a blue flashing light mounted on the roof of their car

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. 

Late July 2020 and the Tip from Hong Kong:

The Metropolitan Police in London received a pivotal tip in late July from China Guardian auction in Hong Kong in late July 2020. An individual known as "Mr. Steel" had emailed the same auction house where the first object had been sold, with knowledge of the whereabouts of the 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

Following confirmation from Interpol and the museum that the vase offered to the Hong Kong auction house was the one stolen from the museum, a Joint Investigation Team is formed in the UK in parallel with their Swiss counterparts.

Undercover Operation

To recover the stolen vase, Officers in  the UK trace the IP address for the email account which communicated with the Hong Kong auction house to an address in Belmont Park Close, Lewisham which is determined to be the home of an individual named David Lamming with connections to the Ahearne brothers.   Meanwhile Swiss authorities, having checked on the car hire company at Geneva Airport rented by Stewart Ahearne determine that the distance the Renault clocked while rented matches with the bidirectional distance from Geneva Airport to the museum, to a French ferry port and on to the brothers' London addresses.

To work towards the recovery of the remaining stolen pieces, an undercover operation is developed via the Trident Operational Command Unit, within the Metropolitan Police Specialist Crime Directorate.  Contacted by an undercover officer posing as an intermediary named "Paul," the police as Lamming for a "proof of life" photo, one that shows the stolen vase he hopes to sell, on top of a recent Metro newspaper as proof the vase is actually in his possession.

Rareness of this Vase, and a Plan to Recover

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 not appear too eager, and to recover the vase, they negotiate downward from the asked £1 million purchase price settling at £450,000 over a series of meetings in London.

Key Meetings and Arrests (2021):

On September 30, 2021, David Lamming met with undercover officers "Paul" and a second officer purporting to be a buyer named "Richard." The three meet at Scott's seafood restaurant in Mayfair where they discuss the purchase price of the Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

On October 7, 2021, Lamming again meets their undercover buyer "Richard", this time in the company of Stewart Ahearne at another Mayfair eatery, Delfino's trattoria.  There the officers finalise the deal, telling the pair they will buy the vase for £450,000. The exchange and purchase is then scheduled for October 15, 2021, at the Marriott Hotel in Grosvenor Square.

Marriott Hotel Encounter and Arrests (October 15, 2021):

On the day of the scheduled meeting, undercover officers entered the Marriott rendezvous room ahead of the transfer, with additional officers stationed at the hotel as backup. 

Image of Mbaki "Leslie" Nkhwa from his Facebook Profile

Outside the London hotel, surveillance teams spot co-conspirator, Mbaki Nkhwa, of The Heights, Charlton. He is observed manoeuvring a sizeable black suitcase into and through the Marriott's lobby, where he eventually connects with Stewart Ahearne before the pair proceed to the agreed-upon meeting point.

Once inside the room, the pilfered "Sweet White" Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase is removed from a yellow JD Sports bag from inside the suitcase and offered to the undercover officer, who give the "go" signal for agents to move in and apprehend Nkhwa and Ahearne.

Meanwhile, outside the Marriott, David Lamming and a driver named Kaine Wright, a once-promising footballer associated with West Ham and Brentford, who were waiting for Nkhwa and Ahearne, leave the scene but are apprehended later. 

Nkhwa and Lamming will be detained briefly on suspicion of handling stolen goods and released on bail while their court cases progressed.   Stewart Ahearne is held in custody. 

Investigations at Nkhwa's residence in southeast London yield significant findings. Ahearne's passport is discovered along with a Geneva museum leaflet, where pictures of the stolen Ming Dynasty items are circled. Telephone data analysis reveals regular contact between Nkhwa, Lamming, and Wright, the driver who conveyed them to the hotel for the intended purchase.

Legal Proceedings and Extradition (2022-2023):

In early May 2022 the Office Fédéral de la Justice in Bern sends two  extradition requests to the British government for brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) who have been charged in Switzerland 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. 

Subsequent to a Swiss request for extradition, District judge Nina Tempia, sitting at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, rules on 17 May 2022 that the extradition of Stewart and Louis Ahearne is not barred and that their extradition case should be forwarded onward for the consideration of the UK's Home Secretary.

Around this same period, the prosecutor's office in Geneva releases the first-ever details about the theft committed in 2019 at the Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient, publicising the names of the Ahearnes for the first time and listing them as their primary suspects. 

Also facing another extradition request from Japan for the two brothers, the UK's Home Secretary approves their extradition to the European country to appear for trial.

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

Lamming's Plea and Convictions (2023):

On March 23, 2023, David Lamming plead guilty to conspiracy to convert criminal property. Almost five months later, on August 18, 2023, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property in relation to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva.

Sentenced in October 2023, Wright and Nkhwa are given sentences of three years and 30 months imprisonment respectively.  David Lamming is sentenced to three years and two months in prison. In adjudicating the three accomplices at their sentencing at Southwark Crown Court, Judge Martin Griffiths said each would serve six months less because of conditions inside HMP Wandsworth.

The Ahernes Trial in Geneva (January 15, 2024):

Following their extradition to Switzerland, and facing charges of theft, trespass, and property damage, Louis and Stewart Ahearne admitted to their involvement in the Geneva museum heist during their trial at the Palais de Justice in Geneva on January 15, 2024. 

Louis Ahearne claimed that he became involved in the theft because he had to "clear a debt" and broke down when answering questions about his life in Champ-Dollon prison, saying he spends his time in a cell by himself for 23 hours a day.  Stewart Ahearne went on the record saying he became involved in the plot to protect his younger brother. 

Prosecutor Marco Rossier argued that the brothers and a third man named during the trial as Kaine Wright's biological father, Daniel Kelly, were "equally involved" in the orchestrations of the burglary, noting Kelly is also the subject of extradition proceedings relating to an incident in Japan.

Both Ahearnes apologised for their actions, and were sentenced by the Swiss courts to three-and-a-half years in custody with a subsequent ban from reentering Switzerland for a period of five years once their sentences are complete.

Louis Ahearne is known to have had a relationship with Daniel Kelly through his burglary carried out with Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly on 9 July 2019 one month after the museum break-in. 

Judge Patrick Monney said the damage they had caused was "considerable and may be irreparable" because one of the rare objects, known as a chicken cup has never been recovered.

This leaves just one unrecovered object from the 2019 theft.  

Authorities continue to appeal for the public’s help in locating the third and final item stolen from the Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient in 2019, 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.

January 21, 2024

Spanish Police Recover 71 Historical Artefacts and Arrest 6 of 10 members of an Art Trafficking Ring

This week the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on an important victory by the Brigada de Patrimonio Histórico de la Policía Judicial in the recovery of 71 artefacts from the Nasrid, Caliphal, Visigoth, and Renaissance periods and the arrest of a group of individuals now facing varying charges for their individual roles in the circulation of illicit artefacts. The historic pieces recovered, many of which were architectural elements, include stone capitals and columns, plasterwork arches, Islamic beams, an Arab funerary stele, and a partial arrocabe, (an ornament in the form of a frieze at the top border of walls), as well as several sculptures and four Visigoth belt brooches.

The genesis of this Spanish investigation can be traced back to a routine documentation check conducted at a booth during the 2021 Feriarte art fair in Madrid. During this examination, law enforcement officers engaged with the seller, raising inquiries about the provenance and collecting history of a particularly suspicious stone capital.

This object dated to the Emirate of Granada, also known as the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, the medieval Islamic state that ruled the southern Iberian Peninsula from the 13th to the 15th century.  Established in 1238 after the fall of the Almohad Caliphate, the Nasrid dynasty successfully maintained its independence amidst the Christian Reconquista and is renowned for having fostered a vibrant society characterised by intricate architecture, advanced scholarship, and a rich blend of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish influences, the most important of which is the iconic Alhambra palace complex. 

A review of the capital's paperwork shed important light on a series of irregularities, which, upon further investigation.  The invoice showed that it had been acquired, along with two other capitals, in an antiques establishment in Granada, but had no invoice number and the VAT amount had not been broken down.  This turned out to be the first lead that allowed officers to identify the group of individuals responsible for the circulation and laundering of similar pedigreed artefacts into the ancient art market via Granada, to Barcelona, as well as on to Valencia and Madrid.

Many of these pieces utilised similar false attestations of ownership claiming that the object on offer had  originated from a family collection which could be traced back to an important restorer who worked on the Alhambra two centuries ago.  The paperwork provided also claimed that the cultural property in question had been part of the family's private collection prior to 1985, the year that Law 16/1985 established a new legal framework for the protection, enhancement and transmission to future generations of the Spanish Historical Heritage.  

Following this investigative period, concrete evidence leads to the filing of charges against ten individuals who are alleged to have been involved in this criminal network. Notably, law enforcement have now apprehended five individuals in Granada as well as one antiquities dealer operating in the city of Barcelona.  Four additional implicated members of the same Granada-based family remain at large as some of them are believed to hold Brazilian nationality and were outside the country at the time arrest warrants were executed. 

According to the police, the leaders of the operation were three siblings from Granada, who, operating an antiques business in the city, facilitated the fabrication of documentary evidence which then allowed the network to introduce the illicit pieces into the legal market via their contact in Barcelona, before circulating onward. 

January 18, 2024

Thursday, January 18, 2024 - ,,,, No comments

Breakthrough in Decade-Long Art Heist: Stolen Chagall and Picasso Paintings Recovered in Antwerp Raid

In a stunning turn of events, two valuable paintings, L’homme en prière by Marc Chagall and a version of Tête by Pablo Picasso, stolen from a Tel Aviv villa in February 2010, have been recovered after a decade-long investigation. The breakthrough came on January 10, 2024, when police in Namur, Belgium, executed searches at the residence of a 68-year-old Israeli luxury watch dealer, known only as "Daniel Z."

The heist, which took place in February 2010 at a villa owned by the Herzikovich family of art collectors, saw the thieves make off with the Chagall and Picasso masterpieces valued at $900,000 (£710,000). In addition to the paintings, jewelry worth $680,000 was stolen from a safe, with the burglars showing a selective focus by bypassing other artworks displayed in the home.

The stolen paintings eventually made their way to Europe, specifically an Antwerp neighborhood, where they remained hidden for several years.

The breakthrough in the investigation occurred at the end of 2022 when law enforcement officers in Namur received a tip-off about an individual attempting to sell the stolen Chagall and Picasso works. A thorough investigation led to the identification of a suspect, prompting months of surveillance and intelligence gathering.

By 2023, Belgian law enforcement confirmed that the suspect was indeed in possession of the stolen paintings and likely stored them at his residence or with an associate. Subsequent checks and resources implemented in 2023 pointed to the suspect's potential possession of the artworks.

On January 10, 2024, police executed a search at the home of "Daniel Z" at the public prosecutor's request. While a significant amount of money was discovered, the two stolen paintings were not found. The suspect confessed to possessing the artworks but refused to disclose their location.

Continuing with leads in the investigation, authorities in Antwerp, conducted a search of a building purportedly linked to past cases of stolen paintings which resulted in the recovery of the Chagall and Picasso masterpieces. Stored in wooden boxes with screwed lids, the artworks were found undamaged and still in their original frames.

According to The Times, Alexander Besedin, the building's caretaker, revealed, "Those wooden boxes were untouched for four or five years, without me really paying attention to them. It was a favor to someone I considered a friend. When I asked him at the time what was in it, he said it was family paintings. They were nailed shut, so I couldn’t see into them."

The main suspect, described as a 68-year-old Israeli luxury watch dealer, has been charged with receiving the two stolen paintings and has been placed under arrest. 

January 12, 2024

Three houses of Vittorio Sgarbi searched and the painting attributed to Rutilio Manetti seized.

Image Credit Vittorio Sgarbi
via Facebook

This week, the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Court of Macerata initiated an investigation to determine whether Vittorio Sgarbi, Undersecretary of Culture, should face formal charges for the offense of Self-Laundering of Cultural Assets (as specified in Article 1(1)(b) of Law No. 22 of the Criminal Code, C.C. art. 518-septies). As an outcome of this inquiry, today, Italy's Carabinieri del Nucleo Tutela Patrimonio Culturale carried out searches at three residences linked to the art critic in Rome and Le Marche.  Simultaneously to these searches, Sgarbi was informed of his status as a suspect, while according to the Carabinieri's press release officers executing the search warrants seized "telematic, IT, and documentary devices" relevant to their law enforcement investigation requiring further examination.

As part of the prosecutor's inquiry, and in order to conduct the necessary scientific examinations for authentication and attribution of an artwork owned by Sgarbi, officers conducted an evidentiary seizure of the art critic's painting titled The Capture of Saint Peter (Italian: Cattura di San Pietro).  This artwork, attributed by Sgarbi as a previously "unpublished" painting by the artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti (c. 1571 – 22 July 1639), was confiscated from facilities associated with the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation in Ro Ferrarese in Emilia-Romagna, Italy.  The order for seizure also called for the seizure of one of the cloned copies of the painting produced by GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co.

Since mid December, in addition to hurling insults at investigative journalists, Sgarbi has angrily and adamantly asserted, on video and in print, that he is the victim of politically-minded journalists and that his painting is not the painting from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo) reported stolen by its owner Margherita Buzio on 14 February 2013.  Instead, he defends his ownership by claiming that the painting in his possession was discovered in the abandoned Villa Maidalchina in the Viterbo area and is a much earlier original, and that the stolen painting was merely a poor copy, completed at a later date. 

As discussed in our earlier blog post, to the naked eye, viewing only digital imagery of the two artworks, both paintings appearto be remarkably similar, with the painted characters depicted matching proportionately and in placement, something ARCA does not believe would have been possible for the original 17th century artist himself, let alone a later copiest recreating the image of his predecessor.

The primary difference, aside from the cut down size of Sgarbi's painting, which might be attributed to the fact that the stolen painting was cut from its frame, is the placement of an illuminated torch, which some allege was added to the top left quadrant of Sgarbi's painting at some later date.  Meanwhile, while ignoring these improbable similarities, or the fact that a painting cut from its frame, would be, by its resulting damage, now smaller, Sgarbi took to the airwaves as soon as the searches and seizure of his painting was announced, stating:

"I spontaneously handed over the work so that all the necessary checks could be carried out, starting from the measurements of the painting compared to the frame of the stolen one. I am absolutely at peace. The seizure is a necessary act. I have nothing to fear. I will defend myself by all means against those who speculate on the matter and those who become complicit in it."

ARCA would like to remind its readers that when questioned by reporters last December about the The Capture of Saint Peter and its added torch, Sgarbi deflected the reporters line of questioning stating that he had sold the artwork in question.  The Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation, where the artwork was recovered was founded in 2008 by Caterina “Rina” Sgarbi and Giuseppe “Nino” Sgarbi and their children, Elisabetta and Vittorio Sgarbi.  This foundation is located in Ro Ferrarese, in the family's home, which is now owned by the Elisabetta Sgarbi Foundation and houses hundreds of works of art – paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 20th century – that have been acquired over many decades. 

It will be interesting to see what paperwork investigators uncover and whether or not said paperwork substantiates an actual sales transaction to the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation, and if this transfer of ownership is of evidentiary interest in the investigation of Self-Laundering of Cultural Assets.

For now, it is up to the investigators to determine if this artwork is one and the same as the stolen painting from Castello di Buriasco, and if it is, whether or not the torch modification was introduced by the art critic himself, or in collaboration with persons currently unknown, as a means of subterfuge, designed to hide the artwork's theft by adding a detail to make the painting appear different from the original.

January 7, 2024

The Judgement of St. Paul or The Capture of Saint Peter? A tail of theft and perhaps too many coincidences

February 2013 

Castello di Buriasco
A large format oil painting is stolen from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo).  The painting was owned by Margherita Buzio and had been on display inside the castello,  which for many years was a restaurant and events venue previously open to the public. 

The theft was discovered by Margherita Buzio after it was noticed that a lock on the castello's external gate had been tampered with, allowing unknown individuals to gain entry to the estate.  

Following the theft, Buzio registered a complaint with the Carabinieri Comando Stazione Vigone noting that she believes the thieves gained entry at night. The stolen painting depicts its protagonist, with his hands clasped and his face turned upwards as a sign of supplication, as he is forcibly brought, by two guardsmen, before a judge who is depicted pointing with his right arm raised. Other individuals, perhaps the apostle's followers, are painted into the background as witnesses to the unfolding events depicted. 

According to her report to law enforcement officers, the painting's owner recounted that at some point, an unknown person or persons had apparently entered the castle she owned and had cut the painting in question from its frame, removing it at an undetermined date.  In its place, the resourceful thief or thieves are said to have replaced the removed canvas with a large photocopy of the work, re-stapling the reproduction back into the original frame.

At a much later date, it will later be determined that the thief or thieves, who cut the artwork from its frame, accidentally left behind a small triangular fragment from the painting's original canvas.  This painted scrap will later be found, stuck between the replacement image and the painting's frame which was rehung at the crime site. 

According to the victim of the theft, a person by the name of Paolo Bocedi, identified from open source media on the internet as an entrepreneur in Lombardia who founded S.O.S. Italia Libera together with Tano Grasso in 1991 had twice visited the Castello di Buriasco in an attempt to purchase the painting, however Signora Buzio declined to sell. 

Date Unknown

Following the report of theft filed with the Carabinieri in Vigone, a theft notice regarding the painting stolen from the Castello di Buriasco is sent by Italy's National Central Bureau to the Interpol Works of Art Unit.   The identikit details of which are uploaded to Interpol's ID-Art App, making the image of the stolen artwork searchable by the general public. 

The INTERPOL stolen works of art database refers to the stolen painting as a 17th century painting of The Judgement of St. Paul by the School of Francesco Solimena, (L'Abate Ciccio).

Spring 2013

According to later journalistic investigations made public in December 2023 by investigative reporters Thomas Mackinson it is claimed that Vittorio Sgarbi, Italy's Undersecretary of Culture in the Meloni Cabinet, contacted Gianfranco Mingardi in the Spring of 2013 telling the Brescia-based restorer: 

"I'll send you a painting to fix".  

Sgarbi has worked extensively with Mingardi periodically in the conservation of artworks from the 1980s until quite recently.

8 May 2013

According to one of Mackinson's article regarding this evolving story, the restorer Gianfranco Mingardi recounted that three months after the theft of the painting from the Castello di Buriasco, on May 8, 2013 he received a painting requiring restoration which was the purported to be property of Vittorio Sgarbi.  Like the artwork stolen from the Castello di Buriasco and uploaded to the Interpol database, the painting requiring restoration depicted its protagonist, with his hands clasped and his face turned upwards as a sign of supplication, as he is forcibly brought by two guardsmen, before a judge, who is depicted pointing with his right arm raised.  

Mingardi told newspaper reporters that he had picked up this painting at the exit of the A4 motorway, in central Brescia in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, adding that he met a delivery truck, along with Paolo Bocedi, who arrived by  motorcycle.  It should be noted that this is the same individual who was was mentioned by Margherita Buzio as the person who had previously contacted her about the purchase of her painting before the artwork was stolen.

At the handover, the restorer Mingardi stated that the painting was delivered to him "without a frame, cut, and rolled up like a carpet".  Once laid out and spread open, the restorer says he observed several parts of the artwork which showed breaks and canvas losses.  

Having taken photos of the artwork at the time it was delivered, Mingardi was able to demonstrate to the journalists that at the time he received the canvas, the painting was rolled up like a scroll and appeared to be in poor condition.  His documentation also showed that at the time the painting was under his care, it did not yet depict a torch in the top left quadrant of the painting's imagery.  

This purported augmentation is thought to have been added at some later date.  

 Photo of rolled atwork
taken by restorer Gianfranco Mingardi 

Also of note in the restorer's photographic documentation is a prominent horizontal line that runs along the entire length of the painting at the point where the two canvases are cojoined at the ground layer,.  This is a common system or merger which allowed artists of the period to create larger format paintings.  Lastly, Mingardi's records identify a series of losses, including a hole in the canvas at the height of the dog's collar, as well as a crack along one tunic and other similar losses. 

10 December 2018

Gianfranco Mingardi tells news journalist Thomas Mackinson that he returned Vittorio Sgarbi's painting to the art critic on 10 December 2018, a full five and a half years after it was received. 

“I realised that that canvas was hot, so I asked him [Vittorio Sgarbi] for a certificate of ownership...He said he would send it to me but he didn't, and when I protested he said not to worry, he could say that it was in Villa Maidalchina..." 

April 2019 

Vittorio Sgarbi's painting depicting its protagonist, with his hands clasped and his face turned upwards as a sign of supplication is now said to be at the studio of Valentina Piovan, an established restorer from Padua. 

Why the artwork was taken to a second restorer is unclear.  What should be noted is that by this time period, Sgarbi's painting now contains an added element, a lighted torch which serves to illuminate the top left quadrant of the painting's imagery. 

October 2020

Samuele and Cristian De Pietri, the owners of GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co., collect Vittorio Sqarbi's painting from the studio of restorer Valentina Piovan at the beginning of October 2020 

13 October 2020

Samuele and Cristian De Pietri, the owners of GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co create a digitised, contactless scan of Vittorio Sqarbi's painting using a high quality, large format scanner capable of scanning large format works of art and then cloning them. 

22 November 2020

Vittorio Sgarbi visits the laboratory of GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co in person, who, according to the owners "was interested in understanding the potential of our machinery, how far it could go. From there we then do many other jobs, for various museums and around Italy." 

Photos and videos are taken where Sgarbi can be seen discussing the original painting left in G-Lab's care, alongside the cloned work created by the business associates.  Both images appear to closely resemble the stolen painting from the Castello di Buriasco. 

These images and video are later shared with the journalists working for Il Fatto Quotidiano and the Rai television program "Report" who release them to the public in 2024.  In the film, Sgarbi can be seen wandering between the original version of the Capture of Saint Peter and its digital clone, examining each of them closely, with a flashlight in his hand moving over key areas of the artwork.

On 12 January 2021 

Vittorio Sgarbi pays a €6100 invoice issued by GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co. which labeled their service as a "consultancy."  According to the business owners, the original version of Vittorio Sgarbi's painting and its digital clone were subsequently transferred to the care of the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation (Ro Ferrarese, Ferrara). However, their original 3D scan file, which digitally captured the scan of the 17th century painting at 1600 DPI resolution (meaning that for every inch of mouse movement, the cursor moves 1600 pixels), and weighing 52 gigabytes, remained with the digitisation company's owners, Samuele and Cristian De Pietri.

8 December 2021 through 2 October 2022

The art exhibition I Pittori della Luce. Da Caravaggio a Paolini, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and produced by Contemplazioni takes place at the Padiglione Panini - Ex Cavallerizza in the historic center of Lucca.  At this exhibition, Sqarbi exhibits the painting he had commissioned to be cloned earlier at GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co. 

According to the accompanying exhibition catalogue, written by Sgarbi and Professor Ciampolini, the 235 x 204 cm, oil on canvas painting is now titled The Capture of Saint Peter (Italian: Cattura di San Pietro) and is written up as a previously "unpublished" artwork, believed to have been completed by the artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti (c. 1571 – 22 July 1639), sometime between 1637 and 1639.  Manetti being an Italian painter of late-Mannerism or proto-Baroque, active mainly in Siena.  

Sgarbi's catalogue as well as accompanying exhibition documentation lists the artwork as being the property of the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation.  Regarding its provenance, the exhibition's catalogue states that the painting was found at the Villa Maidalchina, which in the 1600s was owned by Olimpia Pamphilij, sister-in-law of Pope Innocent.  The previously abandoned villa is located near La Quiete, in the La Pila district, near Viterbo.  Built between 1615 and 1625 this once abandoned villa is now the property of the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation. 

Sgarbi's catalogue goes on to state that his painting "is remembered, generically among others paintings, in the inventory of 11 October 16-49, drawn up by the notary Cosimo Pennacchi, of the assets of Andrea Maidalchini, Olimpia's brother. The works of art, including the famous Bust of Innocent X by Alessandro Algardi, then passed to Giulio Bussi and the Gentili counts."  

According to research conduced by journalists, there is no affirming documentation which concretises these attestations.  In fact quite the contrary, Angelo Allegrini, the Director of the State archives of Viterbo, failed to identify any record of any works of art by the artist Manetti in the bound 1649 records of Pennacchi.  And while there is a record of a painting depicting Saint Peter recorded, that work of art describes the presence of a handmaid, who is not depicted in the work of art in Sgarbi's hands.  

The catalogue further describes the paintings light source as follows: 

"a precise light source, coming from the top left, emphasising the dramatic tone of the agitated scene, enhancing the material values of the clothes and skin and creating suggestive light and backlight effects. A torch, remembered by Honthor Stano, illuminates a room to the left of Herod, creating a symmetry with the scenographic background of the road on the right. There is an evident Caravaggesque origin, which the painter combines with a pursued theatrical taste, in the general layout, as in the individual characters, unnaturally elongated to emphasize their 'dancing pace' way of acting."

Late 2021/Early 2022

By late 2021 Vittorio Sqarbi's painting depicting the Capture of Saint Peter has drawn the attention of investigative journalists Thomas Mackinson and Manuele Bonaccorsi working for Il Fatto Quotidiano and the Rai television program "Report" based upon its similarities to the painting stolen from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo), owned by Margherita Buzio and publicly searchable via the Interpol Id-Art app for stolen artwork. 

Driven by demand from patrons and commissions it was not unusual for artists of the 16th and 17th century to have created multiple versions of a particular theme or to emulate aspects of one another's artist's style.  While each of those are highly plausible, it would have been quite impossible for artists of that period to have matched brush stroke for brush stroke, precisely the proportions as you see below, in this ARCA's overlay of both the stolen painting and the one exhibited at the early exhibition I Pittori della Luce. Da Caravaggio a Paolini, in Lucca.

Aside from the lighted torch element, which illuminates the architectural backdrop on the upper left side, the painting owned by the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation is objectively identically proportioned character by character to the painting stolen from the Buriasco Castle.  

One could argue, as Vittorio Sgarbi later does, that the stolen painting was a much later replica of his painting,  however that still would not explain the absence/occurrence of the lit torch, and again, how the artisan who replicated the work would have precisely matched the brush strokes in such an extracting way. 

By December 2023

By December 2023 GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co., owned by Samuele and Cristian De Pietri, have invoiced undersecretary for cultural heritage Vittorio Sgarbi for a reported 20 thousand euros for the high end cloning and printing of "material reproductions" of paintings.  

These include not only the Capture of Saint Peter, but five other cloned artworks. The latest invoice, paid by Vittorio Sgarbi is dated December 2023. 

After 08 Dicembre 2023 

Stopped outside the Lucca exhibition, Antonio Canova e il Neoclassicismo  journalists investigating the similarities between the stolen painting a the Sgarbi foundation artwork attempt to speak with Undersecretary Vitttorio Sgarbi abouthis foundation's painting and the similarities to the artwork stolen in 2013.  Caught on tape, reporters ask the politician to explain the torch depicted in the Manetti artwork, and the fact that experts state that this is a more recent addition not previously found in the painting when it was worked on by the restorer Gianfranco Mingardi. 

At first Sgarbi hurriedly brushes off the reporters questions, hurling various insults before seating himself in a waiting car with driver.  Very shortly after however, he steps out of the vehicle and reengages with the journalists and camera man somewhat aggressively.  

Speaking in a frustrated or angry tone, he provides further statements regarding the artwork in question while still continuing to hurl colourful vulgarities at the journalists.  He also tells the reporters dismissively that he has sold the painting in question.  At the conclusion of their exchange, Sgarbi takes his leave wishing the journalists a premature death, then denouncing them to the police for stalking.

NB: It should be noted that the PDF for the Lucca exhibition two years earlier already stated that the artwork, at the time of the exhibition, was owned by the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation. 

15 December 2023

In the first of multiple news articles journalists with Il Fatto Quotidiano begin reporting on their questions regarding the seventeenth-century painting in the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation collection which they suspect matches the one stolen in 2013 from the Castello di Buriasco.

17 December 2023

The seventeenth-century Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation painting, titled the Capture of Saint Peter is highlighted in the investigative TV program "Report" in Italy, appearing in the first of multiple episodes on the 17th of December ".  In this first reporting, TV journalist Manuele Bonaccorsi walks his viewers through the story of the theft of the artwork from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo) owned by Margherita Buzio as well as its similarities to the artwork titled The Capture of Saint Peter by the artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti owned by Vittorio Sgarbi's foundation.  

The episode covers the paintings passage from restorer to restorer and the digital scanning firm where it was cloned.  It also discusses the curatorial text listed for the artwork when it was presented at the Lucca exhibition which stated the presence of the work in Villa Maidalchina and that the painting would be certified by a notarial deed from 1649. 

The episode goes on to show that a cross check of the State archives of Viterbo, which contains an inventory of Andrea Maidalchini's assets, drawn up in 1649, and which details various paintings from the collection, makes no mention of any work of art by Manetti.  While this inventory does mention, a painting of Saint Peter, the description does not match the paintings under consideration. 

7 January 2023

By comparing an image obtained by a visitor to the Lucca exhibition of the seventeenth-century Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation painting, the investigative TV program "Report" demonstrates that the purported Manetti painting exhibited in Lucca in 2022 appears to be one of the digital clones created by GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co. in 2020, after the original artwork was scanned on behalf of undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi.

High resolution screenshon of G-Lab scan of Sgrabi's artwork

The news program and the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano publish high resolution images of the scanned artwork, which, by increasing the magnification shows their respective audiences Sgarbi's painting's craquelure, the fine pattern of dense cracking that develops over many decades or centuries, exhibiting irregular patterns. 

Conservators and appraisers of fine art will recognise that the pattern of craquelure on the surface of paintings are one of many factors which can be used to determine the age, the authenticity, and the restoration works conducted of a painting.  In this case, the fine irregular pattern of dense cracking from the drying oil paint can be seen across Sgarbi's entire painting, but is absent from several of the areas where the artwork has been retouched or overpainted during its restoration.  These changes can be visualised in both the area where the torch appears, indicating it may have been added, as well as in areas where losses were documented earlier while the painting was with the Brescia restorer. 

Loss and Restoration Comparison to Sgarbi painting

Comparing the very high resolution image preserved at GLab's studio, alongside the corresponding images of the artwork without the torch previously obtained from the Brecia restorer Gianfranco Mingardi, along with the other details uncovered or contradicted throughout this journalistic investigation, it seems to be quite possible that the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation painting of the Capture of Saint Peter could very well be the same stolen painting, with subsequent enhancements, which had from Castello di Buriasco.

Key to this investigation may be a tiny triangular shred of canvas that the reporters found at the castello in Buriasco, stuck between the plastic replacement photo and the frame left at the "crime site".   Turned over to the Caravinieri TPC in Rome on December 20th, this small, seemingly inconsequential scrap, appears to have once been attached to the bottom right portion of the painting, around the area where the three tipped halberd is depicted placed on the ground.  If this proves to be true,  the reporters' journalistic  hypothesis that Sgarbi's painting is the one stolen in 2013 may proven to be true. 

Sgarbi, in his defense, has claimed that multiple copies of this theme were created by Manetti and that Mingardi, who also did work for his mother and had previously completed a job badly and perhaps, as a result, was harbouring revenge against the family.  He has given no explanation as to why, if their relationship was so acrimonious, that he still elected to entrust this rare 17th century artwork by Manetti to the restorer who held the artwork for more than five years given the claim that his restoration work was deemed so problematic in the past that the art critic had refused payment. 

Regardless, even if we play devil's advocate and assume, through some incredibly rare and almost unbelievable stroke of good luck, that the art critic Sgarbi truly was smiled upon by the luck of the Irish and found this valuable 17th century painting in his foundation's previously abandoned villa near Viterbo, one still has to ponder following questions, including: 

Why would an important art critic, and undersecretary to Italy's Ministry of Culture not provide any concretised evidence that substantiates his claim that the artwork was found at Villa Maidalchina.  As an art historian well-versed in the need for provenance, one has to ask why there are no witnesses named as being present at the time of the discovery, or are we to assume Sgarbi was working on his mother's villa renovations personally?

Why is it that Sgarbi considers the St. Peter mentioned in the inventory of 11 October 16-49, drawn up by the notary Cosimo Pennacchi, of the assets of Andrea Maidalchini to be the painting he now possesses, when that inventory description  describes an artwork which depicts the presence of a handmaid when there are no female figures in the Manetti owned by Sgarbi.  

Why has Sgarbi repeatedly stated that the artist Manetti made multiple copies of this work, yet failed, in his detailed telling of the artwork for the Lucca exhibition, failed to document any of these additional copies be they by Manetti himself or a 19th century copiest as he now claims the stolen artwork to be.  All this notwithstanding that fact that Sgarbi himself admitted to having firsthand knowledge of the one hanging at the Castello di Buriasco and having seen it when he lunched at the restaurant and commented on the painting. 

Update: First week of January 2024

The Italian New services now state that Undersecretary of Culture Vittorio Sgarbi is being investigated by Italian authorities as a suspect in the crime of Self-Laundering of Cultural Assets referred to in Article 1(1)(b) of Law No. 22 of the Criminal Code (C.C. art. 518-septies) .  This investigation seems to fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Macerata and was confirmed via public prosecutor Giovanni Fabrizio Narbone.  

This is unrelated to another investigation, originally opened in 2023 by Alberto Lari, the Imperia prosecutor's office in relation to an earlier investigation into the illegal expropriation of another artwork, the Concerto con Bevitore by Valentin de Boulogne to Monaco.