Art trafficking in 2020, in the shade of pandemic. Over half a million recovered cultural property

(Tempo di lettura: 4 minuti)

It has been the annus horribilis of our time. Nevertheless, not even the Covid has stopped the “beauty thieves”. In 2020, the three hundred Carabinieri of the TPC’s Command, employed by the Ministry of Culture and based in sixteen Units and a Section in the various Italian Regions, a national Operational Department with specialized Sections by subject and a Staff Office that manages the oldest and largest world’s Database of wanted artefacts (1,300,000 files), have recovered 501,574 stolen property. This is the dataset of the “Operational Activity 2020” of the specialized Carabinieri’s Command, instituted in 1969 to honor Article 9 of the Italian Constitution (“the Republic protects landscape and historical and artistic heritage of the Nation”) and which, in half a century of life, has returned more than three million cultural property to the public or to their legitimate owners.

“The accurate work of the Command for the protection of cultural heritage has never stopped, even during this hard year of pandemic emergency” declares minister Dario Franceschini “The art’s carabinieri have recovered and returned cultural property to their legitimate owners, illicitly stolen and exported. They played a prominent role within the Culture Blue Helmets task force, which saw them engaged in important international missions for the protection and safeguarding of the cultural heritage of countries affected by natural disasters. The important results of the operational activity 2020 show, once again, the excellence of the Carabinieri TPC, who have been operating since 1969 and of which we must be proud”.

In 2020, with closed cultural places and intermittently markets, art trafficking adapted to new sales orientations, moving to distance selling methods. The Carabinieri TPC’ counteraction went in the same direction.

Most of the recoveries concerns antiquarian, archival and book sector (483,978); afterwards, archaeological, paleontological and numismatic property from illicit digs (17,596). 1,547 counterfeit artworks were seized: fakes of contemporary art (but not only) which, if placed on the market, would have yield over 415 million euros to criminal organizations. Thefts recorded a decrease of 17.6% (287 compared to 345 in 2019). Above all, thefts perpetrated against the community have decreased: libraries – 50% (from 12 to 6), places of worship – 17% (from 135 to 112), museums – 21.4% (from 14 to 11); unchanged data about regarding to the archives (8 as in 2019).

Outstanding recoveries characterized last year. For instance, the cover of the dossier, where the splendid Head of a Roman female divinity stands out, dating back to the 1st century AD, identified during abroad investigations. The Head, which was at the entrance to the Roman Forum until 12 December 1977, had been detached from its draped bust and stolen by unknown persons.

The activities carried out in collaboration with foreign police Forces, Europol and Interpol, together with “cultural diplomacy”, have allowed the repatriation of many other relevant artworks. Such as the Portrait of a gentleman attributed to Tiziano Vecellio of the value of 6 million euros, illegal export in Switzerland, or the precious old books recovered in the United Kingdom with the Metropolitan Police of London in an activity coordinated by Europol and Eurojust. In the fight against counterfeiting, stand out, next to the fakes of Balla, Schifano, Warhol and De Chirico, the imitation of a Van Gogh with sheaves of wheat and the sequestration of 134 apocryphal artworks by Silvano Campeggi, author of the posters that made the history of cinema, from Gone with the Wind to Ben Hur and Quo vadis?

Portrait of a gentleman, attributed to Tiziano.

Carabinieri TPC supported other Countries after events that compromised their assets in 2020. They intervened in Albania in January, where an earthquake severely hits the Country, and in Beirut in October, after the explosions at the port. They did so as part of the initiative, launched in 2015 by minister Dario Franceschini in agreement with UNESCO, of the “Culture Blue Helmets”, a task force also made up of experts from the Ministry that intervenes for the protection and conservation of cultural heritage in areas devastated by conflicts or natural disasters.

An important year despite pandemic emergency. It began with an exhibition of recovered treasures inaugurated in the Glass Palace of New York on the 7th of January and ended with the return of the historic pendulum Clock of Quirinale. Placed on the tower of the building in 1854 at the behest of Pius IX, decommissioned in 1961 and entrusted to a Roman Institute, it was recovered at the end of December after a stealing that lasted decades. On Christmas Eve, the voluminous “package”, wrapped in a red and blue cloth and decorated with tricolor cockades, was delivered to the entrance hall of the presidential accommodation. A greeting card addressed to the Head of State, signed by the Minister of Culture and the Commander-General of the Carabinieri, accompanied him with the following words: “No clock hand will mark the time when we will stop loving Italy”.

The historic pendulum Clock of Quirinale.

“The advent of new technologies, which we are working on, will allow us to get ever better results” promises brigadier general Roberto Riccardi, commander of the TPC. “It is not a hope, it is a concrete fact that we record at every turning point. Paraphrasing the poet Nazim Hikmet, we still have to live the best year for protection”.

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