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Saturday, Sep 22, 2018
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Feds returning stolen Italian artifact found in St. Pete

TAMPA — Italian authorities in Turin peered into a computer screen at a page out of their nation's history: Latin calligraphy bordered by a hand-drawn floral design in red, blue, green and gold, featuring an oversized initial letter surrounding a sketch of St. Lawrence of Rome.

There was no question about the authenticity of the image, framed and hanging 5,000 miles away at a home in St. Petersburg, and destined someday for a collection at the University of South Florida.

It was page 212 of the Missal of Ludovico da Romagnano, a 15th century Italian manuscript known as the San Lorenzo. The ornate page was owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Turin until art thieves made off with it more than 20 years ago.

Nearly three years after that discovery in Turin, during a ceremony Monday at the Tampa office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the page will be handed over to the Italian government.

Homeland Security took the lead in tracing the work's path to Florida and verifying its authenticity.

“This is a change for us,” said Susan McCormick, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa. “Usually we only seize things. This time we get to give something back. It feels good to give for a change.”

A St. Petersburg man who bought the art didn't know it was stolen and agreed to turn it over. He will not be reimbursed the $5,500 he paid for it. He wasn't charged with a crime and federal authorities refused to release his name.

The tale of the stolen page 212 begins in the 15th century. The story of the recovery starts with a special police unit in Italy that investigates cultural property thefts.

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In April 2011, the police unit came across newspaper articles online from January 2006 about a page from an illuminated manuscript that had been promised to USF's Special Collections upon the owner's death.

Meantime, the owner loaned it to USF so it could be scanned and added to the university's digital art collection. The news reports featured the actual digital image. Authorities recognized it as the page missing page from the Missal of Ludovico da Romagnano.

It is rare for stolen art to find its way to the Tampa Bay area. The way it was traced here, however, is typical, illustrating the modern detective process that is putting more purloined art back into the hands of its rightful owners.

Homeland Security, better known for guarding against terrorism since its creation after the attacks of 9/11, has played a central role.

Since 2007, more than 7,150 stolen artifacts have been returned to 27 countries through Homeland Security Investigations. This is the first in the Tampa area.

Normally, McCormick said, valuable stolen art makes its way to hubs such as New York City or Washington D.C., where they find homes in museums and galleries.

Often, she added, as was the case with the stolen missal page, they are donated or loaned by an art collector who purchased it without knowing it was stolen.

“There are a lot of legitimate art dealers but unfortunately there are some who are not and if you collect a lot of things you may come across stolen property,” McCormick said. “Folks can unfortunately be innocently caught up in this and unknowingly become part of the story.”

Printed on vellum, a form of parchment paper made from calf skin, and designed by an unknown monk in Lombardy, Italy, page 212 contains Latin verses that are a portion of the prayers for the Feast of St. Lawrence of Rome.

St. Lawrence, according to church teachings, was a third century archdeacon who inventoried the Church of Rome's wealth.

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In a twist of irony, St. Lawrence dispersed the church's treasury among the poor so it could not be found when the secular government of Rome demanded he turn it over. He then presented the Roman government the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said they were the true treasures of the church.

In response, the Romans burned St. Lawrence to death on a grill.

A drawing of St. Lawrence appears on page 212, surrounded by a Latin letter. He is depicted with a gridiron, holding a quill to show his devotion to preserving church history.

“You really have to see it up close to appreciate it,” McCormick said. “It was hand drawn but was so perfectly done that you would think it was designed on a computer.”

In 1990, the Archdiocese of Turin hired a team of professors to inventory the church's ancient archives in preparation for an upcoming exhibit. The research revealed that a number of rare books were missing, as were 263 pages cut with a blade from texts including the Missal of Ludovico da Romagnano.

“They were crudely cut out,” said Kim Ellis, one of two special agents with Homeland Security Investigations who tracked down the page in Tampa Bay. “It didn't look like this was well planned. It seems it was just randomly chosen.”

An investigation led to two professors who took part in the inventory, husband and wife Pier Luigi Cimma and Franca Gatto. They admitted the crime and told authorities they sold the goods to a bookseller in Turin.

“There is an underground art network,” said Kristy Anderson, the special agent who partnered with Ellis. “Once items are stolen, they are transported around the world for sale.”

Art, Anderson explained, is easily smuggled.

“It can be put in a suitcase or even mailed. It is hard to catch. But it can be found.”

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The Italian investigation led to Sotheby's, one of the world's largest brokers of art, jewelry, real estate and collectibles. Italian investigators recovered 17 illuminated manuscripts in England, but much of it was still missing. Because London-based Sotheby's has a network of auction houses spanning 40 countries, the remaining books and pages could have been anywhere.

This case, as do many, required luck as well as skill to crack.

For instance, in 2011, a 400-year-old masterpiece painting, “Cristo Portacroce (Christ Carrying the Cross),” which was stolen from its owners in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, was discovered on exhibit at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee.

It was returned to the family and later sold for $5 million.

If the painting hadn't been hanging in public view, it might never have been recovered.

The same is true for page 212 of the Italian missal, promised to USF.

International bureaucracy and chains of command delayed for a year the notice to Homeland Security that stolen art was in the Tampa area.

It was March 2012.

If the St. Petersburg buyer had sold it, the page might have disappeared into networks of auction houses and sellers.

Instead, USF provided the agents with name and address of the St. Petersburg man.

An art collector and aficionado of medieval manuscripts, he had the piece framed and hanging in his living room. He showed the agents the receipt for purchase in 1997 from Graton and Graton, an art dealer in Islamorada.

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According to St. Petersburg collector, Graton and Graton informed him that it had been purchased at Sotheby's in London.

Following an investigation, the agents determined he was innocent of knowingly dealing in stolen art.

Graton and Graton had gone out of business. The former owners said they travelled to London in 1996, as they did every year in search of items to sell when business was flourishing.

They informed the agent they did not remember possessing the page but said if they did it would not have been from Sotheby's but from one of the small book auctions they frequented while in London.

They were not charged with a crime.

Without a receipt showing where the purchase was made in London, Homeland Security closed its investigation.

The agency said it doesn't know how many more pages are missing, calling that a question for the Italians.

The Italian government did not respond to inquiries.

“Sometimes we learn the whole story and sometimes we don't,” McCormick said. “Our primary job was to find and then authenticate it.”

An Italian art history expert was flown to Tampa for the task. He immediately recognized the page as real.

Four months into the U.S. leg of the investigation, it was over.

All that's left is the ceremony.

“The United States returns to Italy a stolen manuscript that, 700 years ago, was beautifully hand painted by an unknown Lombardian monk,” A. Lee Bentley III, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said ion a news release.

“In doing so, we have faithfully discharged our duties under our Treaty with the Republic of Italy, knowing that we have protected the interests of our friend and ally and protected a small piece of a historical legacy that belongs to all of us.”


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