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Special squad of Italian art police crack case of Verona museum theft, arrest 13 suspects

A group of robbers stole 17 paintings, cumulatively valued at more than $16 million, from a Verona museum on Nov. 19, 2015, in an hour-long operation. (Video: Italian State Police)

Nearly four months ago, the art world was struck with the news of a 17-painting heist from Verona’s Castelvecchio Museum. Eleven masterpieces were taken — including work by Italian Renaissance painters Pisanello, Caroto and Jacopo Bellini; by Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens; and by Dutch artist Hans de Jode.

“An absolute disaster,” said one art critic, Italian Vittorio Sgarbi, to Reuters after the Nov. 19 theft.

The total value of the stolen pieces was approximately $16 million, making it “one of the most serious art robberies in our history,” Sgarbi said.

There seemed to be few clues to point investigators toward a culprit or a motive. Some, including Verona’s mayor, thought the thieves were working under commission from a private collector; that theory did away with the near-impossible task of trying to sell such recognizable artworks on the black market. Sgarbi theorized that it was a “demonstrative act” executed by the Islamic State. And then there were those who thought it was an inside job.

The heist itself was bafflingly well-timed. The team of three armed thieves entered the museum at a crucially weak time: 6:35 p.m., after the 11-person staff had left but before the security system’s alarm was activated. All the masked men had to do was disarm and immobilize the security guard, tie up the museum cashier and take their pick of treasures. And they took their time. Two thieves went from room to room, carefully pulling their chosen paintings out of frames and off of walls, while one watched the bound employees. More than an hour after they tied up the guard, the men were recorded speeding away from the building in two vehicles — one of them being the guard’s own car.

That’s when the Carabinieri Art Squad stepped in. Designated as a sort of Italian heritage police, the team specializes in solving art thefts and recovering stolen antiquities. They have a history of solving difficult cases, including the theft of a statue that was missing for 30 years.

The team had surveillance footage from the Italian museum, and testimony from the security guard on duty that night. They got to work.

They wiretapped phones. They expanded their search area. And they honed in on weaknesses in the guard’s testimony. Investigators ended up combing through 4,000 hours of video and hundreds of wiretapped phone calls before they untangled the crime, culminating in the arrest of 13 suspects, as the Associated Press reported.

Among them were the security guard, the guard’s twin brother and the guard’s Moldovan wife. Eleven of the 13 were Moldovans, while two were Italian. They had been recorded on intercepted calls while planning their post-heist strategy, saying ““Let’s wait, stay quiet, be still,” for a few months after their getaway.

It was “the robbery of the century,” said prosecutor Gennaro Ottaviano at the news conference announcement on Wednesday, reported the Corriere del Veneto.

But there was something missing as the media was informed of the arrests: the paintings. Where was the Mantegna, the Pisanello and all of the Tintorettos?

Somewhere in Moldova, said investigators. They hope to find the artwork together, as they don’t believe they were successfully sold, but nothing has been recovered yet.

“The offense to the city of Verona has been partially repaired,” said investigator Renato Cortese. “It will be totally repaired when we can bring home our treasures.”