"The Crucifixion"(1617) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
PHAS / UIG via Getty Images
  • A pair of thieves were well and truly outmanoeuvred on Wednesday morning.
  • The robbers stole what they believed to be a €3 million (R49 million) painting from the Santa Maria Maddalena church in Castelnuovo Magra, northern Italy.
  • Except it was a fake.
  • Police had caught wind of the planned robbery a month before it took place, so swapped the painting with a replica and installed CCTV cameras within the church.
  • The whole town played a part, with the mayor lying to the press by saying the theft was a "hard blow for our community".
  • Police are now investigating the surveillance footage.

On Wednesday morning, a pair of thieves broke into the Santa Maria Maddalena church in the sleepy town of Castelnuovo Magra, which is located about 100 km from Florence in northern Italy.

Their target? "The Crucifixion" by Pieter Brueghel the Younger - a 17th-century depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The painting, which is considered a masterpiece of Flemish art, is worth in the region of €3 million (R49 million), according to The Guardian.

Using a hammer to break into the display casing, the thieves successfully removed the painting and made off with it in a Peugeot.

That morning, the town mayor Daniele Montebello told press that the theft was "a hard blow for our community".

Except it wasn't.

Montebello was lying.

What the thieves had actually stolen was a worthless replica of the Flemish masterpiece that had been installed over a month ago. Furthermore, the thieves had fallen right into a police trap that had required the cooperation of half the town to keep quiet.

Montebello admitted on Wednesday night that the stolen painting had been a fake.

"Rumours were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras," the mayor said.

"I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn't the original but kept up the secret."

Police are now investigating the surveillance footage and interviewing witnesses who were outside the church at the time of the robbery.

"The Crucifixion" was donated to the church over a century ago by a wealthy family. The scene is painted in oil on oak panels and is a copy of Brueghel's famous father's work, though, no version of the original has survived.

During World War Two, the painting was hidden from the Nazis who famously stole hundreds of thousands of paintings during the conflict. In 1981, thieves were successful in stealing "The Crucifixion" but only briefly as they were caught just a few months later.

Protecting valuable artwork displayed in churches poses a very real problem to the Italian carabinieri as they are much more difficult to secure than a gallery or museum.

In 2017, more than 100 works of religious art worth a combined €7 million (R114 million) were recovered following an investigation by the Italian police.

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