New evidence has emerged, which suggests a missing Nativity masterpiece by Caravaggio could soon be returning to Sicily. Theories abound as to the disappearance of ‘Nativity With Saints Lawrence and Francis’ (1609) from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. The latest version of the story was announced by Rosy Bindi, president of Italy’s parliamentary Antimafia Commission earlier this year. According to investigators, testimony from a member of Sicilian criminal organisation, Cosa Nostra, indicates the stolen masterpiece was taken to an art dealer in Switzerland who sold it off in pieces. They have followed this lead to eastern Europe and now believe they can recover the Nativity soon.
The informant, Gaetano Grado, is one in a line of ‘pentiti’ who have decided to turn against the Cosa Nostra and used the name Caravaggio in their testimonies. The first was Francesco Marino Mannoia, who claimed to have been one of the thieves who cut the Nativity out of the altar wall of the Oratory of San Lorenzo on a stormy night nearly 50 years ago. Then Grado came forward to confess his role in the heist and supply fresh information about the painting’s move to Switzerland. Grado claimed mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti took it to a Swiss art dealer who was said to have cried upon seeing it. The dealer also advised they cut the work into pieces to facilitate its sale.
Yet, not everyone is persuaded by the suggestion of an impending Christmas miracle. Charles Hill, the freelance art recovery specialist credited with recovering Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ after it was stolen in 1994 says “it’s bullshit… you don’t just believe a pentito who shoots his mouth off”. Hill believes mafia gangsters supply information about stolen masterpieces in a self-serving way as a bargaining chip with the law. Moreover, if Grado’s testimony is to be believed, then Italian police would have to discredit all previous witness statements. This would include one offered by another pentito who claims a Cosa Nostra boss told him the Nativity had been hidden in a barn and was gobbled up by rats and hogs.
President of Friends of Sicilian Museums, Bernardo Tortorici di Raffadali, shares Hill’s scepticism. Nevertheless, he is excited by the prospect of the painting’s survival after all these years. “It’s likely to be a cadaver of a painting but I believe it still exists”, he said.