Adelaida Segarra, curator of the exhibition Burgos. League zero of the trip of Magellan-Elcano and professor of American History at the University of Burgos, discovered with horror that the map that had been kept for five centuries between the pages of the book Opera The Babylonian Embassy and that it was going to be exhibited with the maximum security measures in the cathedral of Burgos in 2019 was not the first cartography of the Caribbean, but had been replaced by another. Segarra sounded the alarm and the Spanish police began to investigate. Interpol, an international police agency, has integrated this 1514 work by Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca into its ID-Art app, where it shares cyber space with other 52,000 missing pieces in the world; 723 of them are Spanish. The map is the last piece that the National Police has asked to be incorporated into the international base. In the Spanish case, the missing works came from cathedrals, museums, private collections and even the Royal Palace.
Corrado Catesi, coordinator of works of art of Interpol, argues that the theft of this type of artistic and historical jewels has created an “illicit and fluid market” that extends throughout the world and that is increasing due to the countries in conflict and the Covid, and this same applies to illegal archaeological excavations. During the pandemic, Interpol has detected a “marked increase in illegal excavations in Africa (32%), in America (187%) and, above all, in the Asia and the South Pacific region (3,812%), in comparison with 2019. This could be due to the fact that archaeological and paleontological sites are, by nature, less protected and more exposed to illegal excavations ”. The Spanish, too.
In the computer application, which was launched this year, Interpol shows its large database with the works looted in 134 countries. Include photos, descriptions, and details of the objects. “It is the only global database with a certificate of police information on stolen or lost pieces,” says Catesi, who highlights that Interpol does not access or retain the data of people who download the application. “It is completely anonymous so that no one is afraid to consult it,” he adds. It is accessible in English, French, Arabic and Spanish, the official languages of Interpol.
In the case of Spain, the base shows more than seven hundred objects of all kinds and with different origin and chronology: weapons, altarpieces, paintings, sculptures, miniatures, crowns, Roman altars, capitals, manuscripts, books and works of the most various artists in history.
They discover goyas such as a box named The dream of Saint Joseph, that was stolen from a private home in Villanueva de la Cañada (Madrid) on September 1, 2015. The thieves disabled the residence’s alarm system to enter and steal this highly valuable pictorial work together with a drawing, also attributed to Goya, entitled Heads caricatures. By Salvador Dalí there are numerous works on the Interpol list, including Minotaur, a bronze statue from 1981, 1.46 meters high. According to the General Police Station of the Judicial Police, the sculpture was also stolen from a private home in Madrid in 2015.
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Five years earlier, in October 2010, the thieves penetrated the sanctuary of the Virgen del Oro, in Murcia. They broke the lock of an urn and stole a 42-centimeter-high piece attributed to Francisco Salzillo. No one has seen her again.
Criminals do not make distinctions in the size of the valuable objects they steal, such as a tapestry 2.75 meters high and 3 meters wide from the 17th century, from the French school of Gobelins. This is the silk and cotton fabric The achievements of Alexander the Great, which was stolen on December 26, 2009 from a private home in Huesca. The Central Operational Unit of the Civil Guard requested, at the time, citizen help to recover it. “In general,” explains Catesi, “thieves prefer more manageable, easily transportable works, but it is not a norm either.”
In September 2003, the artist Jaume Plensa (Barcelona, 1955) was going to take a plane to Paris, where an exhibition had been organized at the Lelong Gallery. It was planned that 18 sculptures and 26 drawings and collages his. Plensa decided to transport his works himself. He put them in a folder and waited for the plane to leave, sitting in the El Prat terminal. When he got up, the works had disappeared.
A miniature representing the writer Miguel de Maraña (1627-1679) painted by Bartolomé Murillo was stolen from the Sisters of Charity of Seville in 1980. One morning, when they went to check the display case where it was naively kept, they found the container empty. The lock showed no signs of violence. The work, measuring only six centimeters, was a gift from the superior of the Santa Paula convent to the Brotherhood of Charity.
Picture Bust of woman, a portrait painted by Picasso in 1938, a year after finishing the Guernica, was stolen in 1999 from the yacht of a Saudi sheikh. The work represents an artist who loves the painter and is valued at 25 million euros. But this is not the only one picasso in “search and capture”: in that list is Portrait of a man, a small work 33 centimeters high and 44 wide about which Interpol barely offers data.
In 1993, thieves broke into the National Archaeological Museum, in Madrid, and they took a Visigothic bronze cross dated between the 6th and 7th centuries. It measured 34 by 28 centimeters. It had been found in a tomb in Baena (Córdoba) in 1901. The piece was exhibited without any type of protection in a diorama that reproduced an apse of a Visigoth church. The thief only had to reach out and go out among the visitors.
Even one of the most guarded buildings in Spain, the Royal Palace of Madrid, was the victim of a robbery. The thieves took two small paintings by Velázquez in 1989 (Portrait of a lady Y Hand of the portrait of Archbishop Fernando Valdés), another from Carreño de Miranda (Portrait of a lady) and one more from Francisco Bayeu (San Carlos Borromeo).
The works were kept in an area closed to the public, the Sala Velázquez. The surprising thing about the case is that the locks had recently been changed and all the master keys in the building had been bypassed as a precaution. To access the room, you also had to go accompanied by a security guard. The investigations initially focused on the contractors’ personnel who worked in the palace, but also on the conservation and restoration personnel, “who have greater possibilities of placing objects like these on the market,” the Police said at the time.
“They are,” says Catesi, “highly specialized gangs that are part of the most dangerous crime, with connections to the world of weapons and drugs.” His colleague Luigi Mancuso, responsible for the Historical Heritage of Europol, rivets: “That of the white-collar thieves, in the style of Thomas Crown [en referencia a las películas sobre un robo sin violencia interpretadas por Steve McQueen, en su versión de 1968, y Pierce Brosnan, en la de 1999], It is something of the cinema, something that does not exist. The reality is more tremendous ”. According to both experts, the theft of works of art is the fourth illicit business that moves the most money in the world, after drugs, weapons and prostitution. Also in Spain.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.