John Follain in Rome, courtesy of the Australian 16 May 2012 and the Sunday Times
TO his aristocratic friends in Venice, Count Cristiano Barozzi was “one of us”, the descendant of a noble lineage stretching back eight centuries. At their palazzi and luxurious villas, the 70-year-old count was a welcome guest and would show a keen interest in the paintings hanging on their walls. The reason for such fascination was not, it is now alleged, an appreciation of the artworks but rather an assessment of how best to steal them.Barozzi, who holds the title Prince of Santorini, is suspected of being the leader of a gang of thieves who ingeniously snatched 41 paintings, along with antiques and precious furnishings, from the homes of his well-heeled friends.
In an elaborate scam that could have come straight from the plot of the film The Thomas Crown Affair, investigators believe that having identified a target, Barozzi would take a digital photo of the painting, produce a copy and replace the original with the fake. The thefts are alleged to have continued for a decade, during which time none of the owners realised they had been robbed.
According to the police, Barozzi’s keen eye was most attracted to artworks hanging in poorly lit areas, where the copies would not be detected. The aristocrat’s gang members are alleged to be two Sri Lankan butlers who worked for the victims, Claudio Mella, a consultant with the regional monuments and fine arts agency, who allegedly identified the paintings and then advised Barozzi on selling them, and Claudio Celadin, an expert in digital photography.
Over a few months last year, five thefts netted the thieves more than E1 million ($1.3m). The stolen artworks were predominantly painted by the schools of Old Masters rather than by the masters themselves, because these are easier to sell on the black market. Fourteen paintings were taken from the Casetta Rossa, a property on Venice’s Grand Canal. A further nine, valued at E250,000, vanished from a palazzo close to St Mark’s Square. Only 12 of the stolen artworks have been recovered.
The inquiry began when one of the butlers, under investigation for another crime, confessed his involvement in the art thefts.
Barozzi initially fled to Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, but returned to Venice last week and handed himself over to police. Reports suggest he might be willing to assist the authorities. Vittorio Usigli, his lawyer, declined to comment. Given Barozzi’s age, a judge might order him to be held under house arrest.
Even if the count avoids that, the chances of any more invitations from his fellow aristocrats to visit them in their homes is – for the time being at least – thought to be remote.
The Sunday Times