A New Podcast Lifts the Lid on the Notorious Theft of a Caravaggio From an Italian Church

The series aims to locate the painting, which has been missing since 1969.

Caravaggio Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence (1609) Photo: wga.hu

A new gripping, four-part podcast documents the real-life twists and turns of a quest to recover a painting by the Baroque master Caravaggio, believed to have been stolen by the mafia from an Italian church in 1969, in what is considered one of the greatest unsolved art mysteries.

The podcast The Professor: The Hunt for the Mafia’s Missing Masterpiece was created by journalist Simon Willis, a partner of the new documentary studio Brazen, and produced with the weekly investigative radio show PRX.

Over the course of the episodes, Willis spends three years following a 69-year-old Anglo-Hungarian art dealer named William Veres. The dealer is desperately trying to solve the mystery of the missing painting to avoid facing time in prison for allegedly running a smuggling ring dealing in looted and counterfeit art.

Another major character is Arthur Brand, a self-described art detective who has also been hoping to crack the case. He is convinced that with his international law enforcement connections, coupled with Veres’s underworld associations, the pair can help each other out.

The most accepted theory, as described by Brand, is that between one and four local thieves cut down the painting and gave it to a mafia boss either voluntarily or under duress. People interviewed by Willis as part of the audio experience include a woman, who recalls witnessing her mother discovering that the painting was missing, when she was still a child.

Among other revelations are that a police investigation in the 1990s led to the interview of a former mafioso—then a bodyguard to Silvio Berlusconi, the future prime minister of Italy. Witnesses said the individual had tried to sell the painting two decades earlier. Prosecutors were prevented from pursuing the investigation further and the report of the interview has been classified.

Though the painting has not yet been recovered, Willis said he is “happy” with how far the podcast got and might still get. “It could come back, but it would take high-level negotiating, I think, and the involvement of the Italian state,” he said about the possibilities of the painting’s return. “It’s not going to be one of these recoveries that is easily completed by individuals because the stakes are very high.”

Mafioso-turned-witness Marino Mannoia once admitted to stealing the painting, as reported by The Guardian, who said the work was destroyed by the rough handling of the thieves. And since then, Italian police have made little progress in getting further answers.

“I think for several reasons, we should discount the destruction stories. The mafia knows the value of things and is interested in money. In the years after the theft, they tried to monetize the painting by selling it, [according to] criminal and law enforcement sources, so I think it was definitely still in existence at least a decade after the theft,” Willis said.

The first episode, released Monday, starts with Veres’s arrest in London in 2018, covered by Artnet News at the time, as well as the deal that Italy’s anti-mafia police, the Direzione Investigativa Antimafia, brokered with him to find the missing painting, which has eluded authorities for more than half a century. The episode seeks to establish the level of control and influence the Cosa Nostra would have over antiques smuggling, such as the bribing of judicial officers, and places Veres in the realm of the Sicilian mafia.

Authorities ultimately hit Veres with four charges, which could have led to around 20 years in prison, had the deal to find the missing Caravaggio not been reached. Despite cooperating with authorities, Veres maintains his innocence on all charges throughout the podcast.

Artwork for The Professor: The Hunt for the Mafia’s Missing Masterpiece podcast

What Veres does admit is going to coin fairs in Sicily back when looting and grave-robbing was a more accepted practice in the world of art and antiquities. Even the best man at his wedding was Orazio di Simone, the man accused of smuggling the Aphrodite Morgantina out of Italy.

“I had nothing to do with that, but the association is rather unfortunate,” he said, adding later in the first episode that, “In Sicily, it is impossible to not know someone in the mafia”. Indeed, throughout the series, Veres calls in favors from his criminal connections to track the work.

Veres remains on trial. Though the podcast focuses on one investigation of Veres, there are actually two against him running concurrently, so “he remains very much deeply in trouble,” Willis said. During the course of the podcast, the dealer does indeed helps Italian authorities recover a stolen painting but “it doesn’t do the favors he hopes for.” He remains at home in London, though the verdict of the one of the trials is due as early as January.

In the fourth episode, Veres meets an Italian who lives in Belgium, from a mafia family. His own involvement in the organization is unclear, but he was introduced to Willis as being involved in stolen art and weapons trafficking. He gives testimony that moves the tracking of the painting into the 1990s. Apparently, it was still being moved around the country at this time to protect its whereabouts during police crackdowns. That source, referred to as Lorenzo in the podcast, raises questions about who would have been responsible for its protection.

To avoid spoilers, we have not named the mafia boss thought to be responsible. But he was described by Willis as “one of the leading mafiosos at that time” and the man who devised the criminal organization’s grand strategy of cultural terrorism in the 1990s, including the bombing of institutions and the use of paintings as bargaining chips with authorities.

Willis said there is an “extremely strong chance” that this man was in charge of safeguarding the painting, even though he would have been just seven years old when it was stolen. That boss later became a fugitive, eventually turning himself in. He died in prison earlier this year.

“There may be another lead that we’re going to follow, but I don’t want to talk about that quite yet because it’s not fully formed. But there is probably going to be a little extra chapter in the story in the next couple of months,” Willis teased of developments after the podcast’s release. The journalist plans to make another trip to Italy sometime in the new year to follow up his findings.

 

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