By Christopher A. Marinello, Executive Director & General Counsel, The Art Loss Register with Valentina Salmeri, Intern, The Art Loss Register
Stealing art from a church should pretty much guarantee that you’re going straight to hell but stealing art from a church before Christmas, might just secure you a place in Dante’s Inferno between Circles 8 and 9.
Despite the flagrancy of such a crime, it actually happens quite often. In the spirit of year end holiday wish lists, I’d like to offer my own invocations for this season relating to the world of stolen and looted art with a (slightly stretched) holiday theme.
10. Caravaggio’s Nativity
A very personal plea goes out for the return of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (the very meaning of Christmas) which was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily in 1969. Valued at over $20 million it is believed to be in the hands of Mafia kingpins. One former Mafia informer claimed that the painting had been stolen for a private collector but had been destroyed by rats and pigs while hidden on a farm outside Palermo. I don’t buy it nor should you.
9. Christmas Eve Theft
Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology received an awful Christmas present on Christmas Day 1985 when they discovered that over 140 Mayan and Aztec objects had been stolen during the night. Eight guards had no clue what was happening and it was later discovered that the alarm system had not been functioning…for three years! While many items were recovered years later, over $40 Million in gold and precious stone figures are still missing.
8. Madonna and Child
Another classic Christmas theme, Bellini’s Madonna and Child was stolen for the THIRD time in 1993 from the church of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice, Italy. Sadly, a photograph now hangs in place of the original (valued at over $15 million) while tourists and worshippers await its return.
7. A Cezanne Dressed for Christmas Dinner (?)
Armed criminals stole four masterpieces from the E. G. Bührle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland including Paul Cezanne’s Boy in the Red Vest who could be dressed for Christmas dinner. Three men wearing ski masks entered the museum and ordered the staff and visitors at gunpoint to lie down on the floor while they made off with the four paintings worth over $170 Million. The Cezanne and a Degas remain missing.
6. Unhappy New Year
On New Year’s Eve, 1999 a clever thief made off with a $5 Million painting by Paul Cézanne entitled View of Auvers-sur-Oise. The burglar cut a hole in the roof of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, England and descended to its art gallery by rope ladder. The noise of the break in was masked by the sounds of the new millennium celebratory fireworks.
5. A Pair of Van Goghs for the Holidays
Another Ho-ho-hold up involved the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where a pair paintings (one of a congregation leaving a church) by the Dutch master Vincent van Gogh were stolen in December 2002. Dutch police said the thieves entered the museum by climbing down through the roof setting off the alarm system. The thieves had however disappeared by the time police arrived. A Dutchman, known as “The Monkey” for his ability to elude police by climbing walls and roof tops, was later arrested but the paintings remain missing.
4. Stripping a Church before Midnight Mass
On Christmas Eve in 1997, over 100 religious artefacts were stolen from the Church of San Andres de Machaca in La Paz, Bolivia including several colonial masterpieces treasured by the local community. This year the ALR recovered two of the most valuable paintings but four more remain missing, including the large portrait of St. Francis pictured below.
3. Losing Your Marbles
Here’s hoping that the British and Greek governments will stop fighting over who owns the Parthenon Marbles and find a way to reunify the frieze with the Parthenon in Greece so that the world can see them in the context in which they were created.
2. Less Talk, More Action
That governments will do more than just pledge their commitment to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Mainly, that governments, museums, and the art trade will cooperate and exchange information to ensure that archives remain open, accessible, and transparent when dealing with Holocaust related art claims.
1. And finally…
I recognize that Peace on Earth is not something that is going to happen anytime soon, but as nations continue to engage in various forms of armed conflict, may they find ways to preserve and protect the Cultural Heritage that belongs to all mankind.