Location: Oratory of San Lorenzo Church, Palermo Italy
Stolen: October 1969
Artwork: ‘Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence’ by Caravaggio
Value today: estimated at more than $28,000,000 AUD
People speculate that the work of Italian renaissance painter Caravaggio showing the classic Christian nativity scene was possibly stolen to order by the Sicilian mafia the Cosa Nostra over 50 years ago. Sometime in October of 1969, the large painting was cut from its frame above the church altar with a razor blade or knife. This appeared to have been done professionally given the size and weight of the painting and the fact that there was no damage to the delicate plasterwork of the church walls that surrounded the frame. Its removal could not have been rushed or unplanned.
The theft has become one of the most important art theft crimes in history.
Authorities believe that the painting was probably passed between various members of the mafia and most likely is still hidden somewhere in Sicily if it has not been destroyed. They think that the thieves may have heard about the value of the painting on a television program broadcast in August 1969 that highlighted the ‘hidden treasures’ of Italy. Knowing the painting had virtually no security around it, they took the soonest opportunity to steal it. They were either members of, or working for, the mafia themselves, or the local mafia found out who had the painting and took it from them to assert their control.
Since then, there have been many stories about where the mafia might have the painting hidden or that they have destroyed it. One informant had said it was given to a mafia family who hid it in a barn where it was so badly damaged by rats and pigs, it was burnt. This story is discredited by authorities. Other versions say the mafia sold or distributed it through their heroin trade and that it may be somewhere in Switzerland or the United States. Or further, that the hidden painting was buried under rubble in the Irpinia earthquake in 1980.
A high-quality replica of the painting was placed in the church in 2015.