Buried on an Ukrainian island the 17 paintings stolen from the Castelvecchio museum in Verona
Andrea Mantegna, Holy family, tempera on board, cm 76×55,5, inv. 855-1B0087.
Jacopo Bellini, Saint Jerome penitent, tempera on board, cm 95×65, inv. 876-1B0306.
Giovanni Francesco Caroto, Portrait of a Boy Holding a Child’s Drawing, oil on board, cm 37×29, inv. 5519-1B0130.
Antonio Pisano, Holy Mary with the Child, known as Madonna della quaglia, temperal on board, cm 54×32, inv. 164-1B0090.
The paintings stolen from Castelvecchio Museum in Verona last 19 November by three armed men while the museum was closing and the alarm system was still off, were found on 6 May, in the area of Odessa, precisely on a island of the Dniester river not far from the partially recognized state of Transnistria, and just a few kilometres away from the border between Ukraine and Moldavia. According to the Ukrainian police commissioner Viktor Nazarenko, who officially announced the finding last Thursday, the paintings were buried wrapped in some black plastic drop cloths and hidden behind some shrubs.
The group of paintings – full list available on the museum web site – includes 6 Tintoretto’s and some important pieces such as the so called “Madonna della quaglia” by Pisanello, the “Saint Jerome penitent” painted by Jacopo Bellini, “The Holy family with a Saint” by Andrea Mantegna and the inspiring “Portrait of a Boy Holding a Child’s Drawing” that Francesco Caroto painted around 1515. According to Ukrainian officials, the thieves hid the artworks near Odessa in order to elude the Moldavian Police and, at the right time, to be ready to sell the booty on the black market in Russia or Ukraine. As the head of Verona city council’s press office, Paolo Bolis, declared to La Repubblica newspaper, “they were professional criminals, but not art experts. They didn’t take the most valuable artworks in the museum. They preferred portable pieces, perhaps following a list”.
The estimate given by the former museum director, Paola Marini (now director of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice), are purely theoretical, since artworks in Italian public museums are part of the country’s artistic heritage and can’t be sold on the market. “Anyway – an Italian art dealer who prefers to stay anonymous comments – if a Mantegna like the one in the collection of the Castelvecchio museum had been auctioned it would have likely been sold in the area of 20 million euro or so”. And the same, we may add, would have been for the outstanding Madonna della quaglia.
“Italian authorities did a extraordinary job – says Margherita Bolla, nominated director at the Castelvecchio museum only ten days after the crime had been committed. “They never lost faith even when it seemed that the paintings had been destroyed. In the end they made it, and now we are extremely happy to have them back”. The Italian Ministry of Culture is discussing with Ukrainian authorities about the modalities of the restitution, and at the moment it is not clear who, for Italy, will be in charge of recognising the pieces. It is still to be announced when the museum of Castelvecchio will have its pieces back “We hope any time soon” asserts Ms. Bolla. So far, 13 people have been arrested, 10 Moldavian and 3 Italians. Among them there is a private guard working for the museum itself and his Moldavian wife, who probably was the gang’s connection with Italy.