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Stolen Bruegel masterpiece was switched with fake in police sting

16 March 2019

Or so thieves thought when they grabbed the 17th century painting, with an estimated value of three million euros, after smashing a display case in the Saint Mary Magdalen church in northern province La Spezia.

He said the theft would have been a "hard blow for our community".

Robbers deployed a hammer to break into its display case and escaped in a auto.

"Rumours began to circulate that someone could steal the work and the carabinieri chose to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some surveillance cameras", explained Mayor Daniele Montebello, who helped keep the subterfuge under wraps before and even after the heist.

"We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri (Italy's paramilitary police force) brought in the fake and installed security cameras".

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It gradually emerged that the stolen object was a fake and that the original had been placed in safe keeping. Mayor Daniele Montebello says the law enforcement agency reacted by deciding "to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras". "I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn't the original but kept up the secret".

Police are now investigating the surveillance footage and interviewing witnesses who were outside the church at the time of the robbery.

The painting - donated to the church by a wealthy family in the 19th century - was stolen almost 40 years ago.

Painted in oil on five oak panels, the scene is a copy by Brueghel the Younger of one of his famous father's works, now lost.

The country is a popular destination for art thieves, with half of the artefacts stolen in 2016 being held in churches.

Stolen Bruegel masterpiece was switched with fake in police sting