Last week in a ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Madrid, two objects were returned to their rightful country of ownership, Italy. The discovery and restitution of these items was made possible by collaboration between cultural heritage police units in both countries.
The first object is a sixteenth-century gilded wooden reliquary depicting Pope Clement I (known as Saint Clement of Rome) which has been attributed to Italian artist Aniello Stellato (active circa 1605-1643). It was stolen from the Church of the Gesù in Lecce in 2019 and was discovered when it came to the attention of investigators that it may be being sold by an antique dealer in Madrid.
The second item also dates to the seventeenth century, and is a genre painting in oil by an anonymous Lombard artist titled Luncheon. This object was stolen from a private collection in Bologna in 2000 and came to light when Interpol located it at a Spanish auction house. Interpol contacted investigators, who soon realised the painting, being advertised under the name Kitchen Still Life, was the object stolen over two decades ago in Bologna.
At the ceremony was Italian Ambassador to Spain Riccardo Guariglia, the head of the Italian Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Unit General Roberto Riccardi, and the Director General of the Spanish National Police, Francisco Pardo Piqueras. Guariglia thanked the Historical Heritage Brigade of the Spanish National Police and the Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Command for “their constant efforts” in “the recovery of stolen works and their subsequent return to their communities of origin.” He also commented on the “fundamental role of cultural diplomacy between Italy and Spain, two countries characterised by a strong affinity, as well as by a common history that has always found in art and beauty a fertile and rich field of collaboration.”
On the behalf of the Spanish police, Piqueras emphasised the “importance of the fruitful cooperation that has been consolidated in recent years between the Spanish and Italian authorities”.
Also in attendance at the celebratory ceremony were two art historians, David García Cueto from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and Roberto Alonso Moral from the city’s Universidad Complutense, who presented artistic and technical research on the two recovered works.
Recent technological advances made by Interpol, such as the launch of their new app to assist with identifying stolen works, demonstrates the determination of police forces and Interpol to identify and restitute stolen goods. But this still remains a challenging task, with many art works and new claims for stolen goods emerging on a regular basis. Earlier this year, Italy made a claim that an ancient statue in the Minneapolis Institute of Art had been looted near Pompeii in the 1970s, and Spanish police traced a Flemish tapestry stolen nearly fifty years ago.