The hunt for Madonna del Rosario

The term “orphans” or ofranelli” refers to fragments of vases decorated or crafted by well-known painters and potters, such as Euphronios, Exekias, or Onesimos[1]. Slivers of these vases are worth as much as several thousand apiece and have been used to incur the appetites of collectors. Watson and Todeschini track several ofranelli used to “sweeten the deal” in their journalistic narrative The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities — From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums.

Watson and Todeschini [2] follow Medici’s underhanded transactions of orphaned shards, pegging them as revenue for future dealings with a variety of prestigious but short-sighted institutions. In a similar vein Dublin gangster Martin Cahill believes that individual criminals and criminal gangs take on jewellery theft and money extortion for their immediacy of profit and nigh impossible traceability [3]. The Pink Panther heists in 2008 are a perfect example of this [4][5]. Just imagine hunting down 116 diamonds possibly split from the 125-carat Comtesse de Vendôme necklace in a global jewellery market that roughly turns over $348.5 billion per year [6][7]. Like jewellery and pottery sections of stolen paintings have also been known to surface in the market.

In 1715 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was downsized for aesthetic reasons. Two feet from the top, two feet from the left, and inches from the right and bottom were removed, ‘As well as losing two figures on the left, the painting lost much of its airy architectural space, and the once off-centre figures of Banning Cocq and his second-in-command Van Ruytenburch was now aligned to the centre, arguably making the painting lose something of its sense of forward motion’ [8]. Although altering the size of paintings was fairly common practice in the 1700s “cut works”, for want of a better tag, feature far too frequently in today’s market – and not simply as a result of questionable feng shui.

A conversation with Daniela Montaldo, sole conservator in Amelia, Umbria, inspired this author’s queries into cut works appearing in the art market. A few years ago a thief wanting to make a quick buck hacked the portrait of a young woman from a 17th Century painting, brazenly slashing out the face with a Stanley knife. Fortunately he was caught before any sale could commence and in 2017 Daniela was approached and asked to reintegrate the stolen piece back. This example only scrapes the surface of a web of under-researched criminal activity currently taking precedence with cut works.

Image 1: Section of cut work, photograph provided by Daniela Montaldo.

In 1988 an inquiry that sought to address the many lost, stolen and looted Italian works of art entering the market initiated [9]. The investigation was conducted by the antiques section of the TPC Carabinieri under the supervision of Stefano Pesci, Deputy Prosecutor for the Public Prosecutors Office at the Court of Rome. Over a period of three years the investigation established the existence of a large network of people involved in the trafficking of stolen goods. The business spanned twenty-five years, initiating in private homes, sacred places, antique stores and auction houses from Rome and Emilia-Romagna into central-northern Italy and Triveneto [10]. The Carabinieri concluded their investigation by denunciating a total of twenty-two people, leading to the confiscation and restitution of 175 works of art and antiquities [11]. Amongst these works was the Madonna del Rosario.

In 1987 the Madonna del Rosario was stolen from the Church of Stenatia [12][13]. The oil dating from the 17th Century was originally 240 x 130cm in diameter, the composition depicting the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels. After six years of intense legwork the artwork was eventually recovered in Lecce – having gone through an inconceivable transformation. In order to hinder its identification the thieves dismantled the work into sections – four of these were discovered in the investigation conducted by the Carabinieri [14]. The Carabinieri uploaded the painting to the “Stolen Cultural Data Bank” called Leonardo, an informatics system comprising several data-processing modules. Specific software interfaces were able to link the photograph with auction house catalogues, art exhibition catalogues, and works of art published on the Internet. Four independent transactions together composed the lost Madonna del Rosario

Image 2: image overlay of the separate paintings that together form Madonna del Rosario <https://www.qmul.ac.uk/law/media/law/docs/events/TPC_London_QMU.compressed.pdf&gt;

Established in the 1980s Leonardo is a state-of-the-art database that now represents an international model for the hunt of art thieves and traffickers. It feeds into the Interpol database “PSYCHE” (Protecting SYstem for Cultural HEritage), funded by the European Union, and has thus become the track for which international police forces adapt their investigatory procedures [15]. The hunt for and recapture of Madonna del Rosario is thus the result of excellent collaboration and detective work made possible with the Stolen Work of Art Database, Leonardo.

There exists many international statutes, such as the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects [16] and Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property [17]. By avoiding ratification countries consciously dodge transitioning these soft laws into national legislation. Gerstenblish [18] summarises that loopholes even exist in the Statute of Limitations, which ‘does not begin to run until the owner demands that the possessor return the stolen property and the possessor refuses.’ While this works well for the recovery of stolen art works and antiquities is has been criticised from a policy perspective. This brings to mind Jeffrey Robinson’s words from The Globalisation of Crime [19]:

As long as we live in a world where a sovereignty philosophy from the 17th century is reinforced by a legal system conceived in the 18th century, based upon a conception of the fight against crime from the 19th century, which is still trying to come to terms with 20th century technology, the 21st century will belong to international criminals.

The intersection between art, law and cultural heritage is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing on history, art history, anthropology, archaeology, economic and international relations [20]. There are many differing police structures, jurisdictions, laws, policies and procedures that exist in active trade zones. Mutual assistance does exist but there are several reasons why there is a lack of art market transparency such as law enforcement officers not being trained in fine art; customs authorities not having the power to seize stolen goods; the existence of too many solo, unrefined and restricted art loss databases; cultural property crime not being considered a big issue; an alarming lack of responsibility.


[1] Watson P, Todeschini C 2007, The Medici Conspiracy, United States of Public Affairs, New York, p. 178

[2] Watson P, Todeschini C 2007, The Medici Conspiracy, United States of Public Affairs, New York, p. 178

[3] Kerr J 2013, The Securitisation and Policing of Art Theft in London, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, City University London, p. 34

[4] Ellis D 2019, ‘Art Policing and Investigation’ in the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, lecture, Amelia, 10 June 2019.

[5] Carvajal D 2008, ‘The Heist at Harry’s’ in The New York Times, published 12 December 2008, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/fashion/14heist.html&gt;

[6] Carvajal D 2008, ‘The Heist at Harry’s’ in The New York Times, published 12 December 2008, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/fashion/14heist.html&gt;

[7] Co Data (2018), ‘The Size of the Global Jewellery Market’ in Common Objective, published 14 May 2018, viewed 17 May 2020, sourced from <https://www.commonobjective.co/article/the-size-of-the-global-jewellery-market&gt;

[7] Güner F 2019, ‘Why Rembrandt’s the Night Watch is Still a Mystery’ in BBC Culture, published 15 February 2019, viewed 5 August 2019 <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190214-does-rembrandts-the-night-watch-reveal-a-murder-plot&gt;

[8] Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (MiBAC) 2017, ‘Conferenza Stampa: Si conclude l’operazione Asso dei carabinieri… e parla il primo “pentito” dell’arte illecita’ in Appunti di viaggio, viewed 17 July 2019 < http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1253245002.html&gt;

[9] Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (MiBAC) 2017, ‘Conferenza Stampa: Si conclude l’operazione Asso dei carabinieri… e parla il primo “pentito” dell’arte illecita’ in Appunti di viaggio, viewed 17 July 2019 < http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1253245002.html&gt;

[10] Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (MiBAC) 2017, ‘Conferenza Stampa: Si conclude l’operazione Asso dei carabinieri… e parla il primo “pentito” dell’arte illecita’ in Appunti di viaggio, viewed 17 July 2019 < http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1253245002.html&gt;

[11] Albertson, L 2019, ‘Tracking Stolen Art: Progress, Prospects and Limitations of Databases for Stolen Art’ in the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, lecture, Amelia, 03 June 2019.

[12] Rapicavoli, S (unknown), ‘Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC)’ in Carabinieri TPC Department, viewed 3 July 2019 <https://www.qmul.ac.uk/law/media/law/docs/events/TPC_London_QMU.compressed.pdf&gt;

[13] Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (MiBAC) 2017, ‘Conferenza Stampa: Si conclude l’operazione Asso dei carabinieri… e parla il primo “pentito” dell’arte illecita’ in Appunti di viaggio, viewed 17 July 2019 < http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1253245002.html&gt;

[14] Italian News Agency (AGI) 2017, ‘Database carabinieri a protezione patrimonio culturale’ in Archivio, viewed 17 July 2019 <https://www.agi.it/archivio/expo2015/database_carabinieri_a_protezione_patrimonio_culturale-185465/news/2015-06-09/&gt;

[15] UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, 24 June 1995, in force 1 July 1998, (1995) 34 ILM 1322

[16] Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 14 November 1970, in force 24 April 1972, 823 UNTS 231

[17] Gerstenblith P 2012 ‘Statutes of Limitation’ in An Introduction to Art and Cultural Heritage Law, Carolina Academic Press, pp. 433

[18] Albertson, L (2019), ‘Tracking Stolen Art: Progress, Prospects and Limitations of Databases for Stolen Art’, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Amelia, Umbria

[19] Gerstenblith P 2012 ‘Statutes of Limitation’ in An Introduction to Art and Cultural Heritage Law, Carolina Academic Press, p. xvii