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Wanted: Caravaggio's Nativity & A Get-Out-Of-Jail Free Card

Wanted: Caravaggio's Nativity & A Get-Out-Of-Jail Free Card
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It's one of the coldest cold cases in the history of art crime: the theft of Caravaggio's Nativity.

It's raining heavily in Palermo on the evening of 18 October 1969. Driving along the Via Immacolatella in the city's crumbling centre, two men can hardly see the road in front of them. Thunder cracks threateningly above as they roll up to the Oratory of San Lorenzo. It doesn't take long for them to break into the church and get what they came for: Caravaggio's 360-year-old masterpiece, the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. Using a razor, they slice the canvas from the frame above the altar and vanish. The painting is never seen again.

At least, that's the story that's been told.

No one really knows what happened, because the painting has never been found, and the thieves have never been convicted.

Some claim the work was hidden away at rural farm, where it was eaten by mice and pigs in a barn. One mafioso who turned state witness said it had been stolen to order, but was burned when the devastated purchaser saw how badly damaged it had been in the theft. Another claimed the painting was displayed at important mob meetings as a symbol of power. A British journalist, Peter Watson, claimed that he'd tracked down the masterpiece, but that it was subsequently lost in the rubble of the deadly earthquake that hit Irpinia in 1980.

The frame hangs empty in the Oratory of San Lorenzo after Caravaggio's painting was cut from it in 1969. In 2015, a replica was commissioned and hung in the altar.

Whatever the theory, the Caravaggio remained lost. But someone was searching for it – someone you probably wouldn't expect. His name is William Veres, and he was a man in serious trouble. In 2018, Veres, an art dealer, had been arrested for illegally trafficking antiquities and works of art by Italy's Carabinieri. He was staring down the barrel of a 20 year prison sentence. But he had an audacious plan to try and get out of it... he would find the missing Caravaggio and hand it over to Italy's anti-mafia police.

It's a search that sent him into darkest Sicily, meeting with Mafia men and their associates in a desperate hunt for the lost masterpiece. Along for the ride was journalist Simon Willis, host of Brazen's latest investigative podcast series, The Professor, which tells the full story of Veres, his deal with the anti-mafia police, and his search for the Caravaggio.

Simon met Veres back in 2018, shortly after he was first arrested for smuggling, and has followed him to this day. It's a story that's led Simon himself to meet some troubling individuals, including arms dealers, the so-called 'Indiana Jones of the art world', and even a former Mafia hitman who later turned state witness.

Caravaggio's Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, painted in 1609.

You can listen to the whole journey in four-parts in The Professor: Hunting for the Mafia's Missing Masterpiece. The show is out on Monday, with all four episodes available for Brazen+ subscribers. For a taster, check out the pre-season bonus that's already been published: Meeting Simon Willis: Unlocking the secrets of a stolen masterpiece. I'll leave you with a word from Simon himself, and the video trailer. Here's what Simon had to say about the show:

β€œThe podcast is in one sense a sort of a caper, because it's about searching for a stolen painting. In another sense, it's a journey deep into Italy's relationship with the Mafia and organised crime, which obviously has a long and deep and complicated history and is still ongoing right now. It's about the relationship between organised crime and Italian politics, and organised crime in Italian business – and through the mystery of this painting, all of those worlds collide.”

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