Were Verona Civic Museum’s paintings stolen to fund terrorism, stolen to order to supply a collector, or just stolen?

Seventeen paintings have been stolen from a museum in Italy. They are theoretically worth €15 million/$16 million/£10.5 million though, whether they were stolen to be sold or stolen to be kept (then sold), any black market value may be far lower. The bigger question, right now, is why they were stolen…

What happened?

According to Castelvecchio council spokesperson Roberto Bolis, once the museum cashier and security guard had emptied Verona Civic Museum of its eleven (other?) employees, the three thieves bound and gagged them, which prevented them from setting the alarm or alerting the police.

The Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) detailed that one of the robbers held the cashier at gunpoint ‘while the other two escorted the museum custodian through the exhibition rooms’ and noted that the criminals’ method was similar to the unsolved robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. The thieves also took the security guard’s keys, then stole his vehicle and used it as their getaway car. (ARCA has also posted the pictures and their details, including their individual values.)

Theft-to-order?

Verona Civic Museum told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) that it was ‘likely’ a case of theft-to-order, a robbery that had been ‘masterminded by a private collector‘. Castelvecchio city mayor Flavio Tosi observed to the AFP and Reuters: ‘Someone sent them, they were skilled, they knew exactly where they were going.’ ‘[T]he thieves were working under [on] commission.’

Conflict antiquities?

Former junior culture minister, current art critic Vittorio Sgarbi adapted arguments that are incorrectly used to deny the existence of theft-to-order in order to raise a rather different possibility. Paraphrased by Reuters, Sgarbi said that ‘the paintings would be instantly recognizable and virtually impossible to sell’. Consequently, Sgarbi considered that the theft ‘may have been organized by Islamist militants as a “demonstrative act”‘.

Jihadists would have destroyed the portraits as an act of iconoclasm or trafficked the artworks as a means of fundraising, not extracted and stashed the paintings as a warning that it was possible to steal art. That sounds rather too much like a postmodern art project.

According to mayor Tosi via ARCA, Italian authorities are considering the ‘possibility that the paintings could have been stolen to fund “jihadisti”‘. That possibility cannot be dismissed lightly. One gang of jihadist fundraisers trafficked antiquities from Egypt through Spain; another gang robbed churches in Germany (and seemingly supplied an internal market or local handlers); it does happen. But there has been no explanation of whether that is a theoretical possibility or an intelligence-led avenue of inquiry.

Everyday illicit business?

The Vice-Commander of the cultural heritage Carabinieri, Colonel Alberto Deregibus (who has elsewhere discussed online trafficking), judged that it was ‘unlikely‘ a case of theft-to-order, because of ‘the large number of paintings stolen’. It is a fairly reasonable argument, as a collector would probably not (want to) establish a “gallery” from one institution; but sometimes selections of exhibits are stolen to order.

Apparently, some of the paintings were removed in their frames, whereas some were removed from their frames then taken. If the thieves consistently unframed the paintings then switched to taking the artworks framed, it might indicate that they decided that they did not have the time to take more (as many as they would have liked). Col. Deregibus suggested: ‘It may have just been delinquents who thought: “let’s steal them and decide later what to do with them”.’

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