Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s The Crucifixion seemingly vanished from a church in northwest Italy this week after robbers smashed open its case with hammer.
It looked to have been a perfectly executed heist, until police revealed on Thursday they had swapped the Flemish artist’s original 1617 oil painting with an exact replica.
After being tipped off about the planned theft last month, officers had also installed secret cameras in the church in town of Castelnuovo Magra in Liguria to catch the culprits in the act.
The town’s mayor Daniele Montebello was also in on the bluff, initially telling the media the loss of the “work of inestimable value” was “a hard blow for our community”.
He later admitted the real painting had been placed in secure storage weeks ago.
“The rumour had started to circulate that someone could steal the work and the Carabinieri [national military police] decided to keep it safe, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras,” he told Italian news agency Ansa. “For investigative reasons we could not reveal anything.”
The mayor also thanked parishioners, some of whom had noticed the Bruegel on display in the Santa Maria Maddalena church “was not the original but did not reveal the secret”.
The painting, a reproduction of a work by the artist’s father, Bruegel the Elder, was donated to the church in the 19th century by a family of Italian nobles.
The thieves pulled up in a Peugeot at lunchtime on Wednesday before speeding off with the fake masterpiece in a smash-and-grab raid.
Police are now studying the surveillance footage in a bid to identify the gang.
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