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S19 Ep6

The Caravaggio Heist

Premiere: 11/24/2021 | 00:55:30 | TV-PG | Closed Captioning Icon

Father Marius Zerafa, director of museums in Malta, risks his life to recover a Caravaggio masterpiece stolen from a cathedral in 1984.



About the Episode

In 1984, a Maltese national treasure went missing from the cathedral of St. John in Valletta – a masterpiece by the legendary Italian master  Caravaggio. Two years of investigations across Europe led to nothing, but a strong-willed priest never gave up. Father Marius Zerafa, director of museums in Malta, managed to establish a channel of communication with the thieves and set off on a quest to recover the priceless painting. Despite not having the money to pay their ransom, he risked everything, putting his life on the line for the sake of a masterpiece.


♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -On the small Mediterranean island of Malta, Caravaggio's masterpiece 'Saint Jerome Writing,' disappears.

♪♪♪ -It was one of the prized exhibits of the museum and of Malta itself.

-We checked for shoe marks, for footprints, but there was very little evidence pointing to these people.

-For two years, we heard nothing at all.

And then one evening, a young man came and knocked at the door.

And he had an envelope.

And inside it was a Polaroid picture of the 'Saint Jerome,' cut off the stretcher, with a coffee pot on it.

-Father Zerafa was the curator of the National Museum.

He was receiving telephone calls from the people who had stolen the painting, asking for money for the redemption of the painting.

-'The Caravaggio Heist.'

♪♪♪ -'Secrets of the Dead' was made possible in part by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.

♪♪♪ [ Indistinct conversations ] -You're gonna wait outside, get the car started.

Don't move from there until we give you the signal.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -As I recall the story, and as it happened, this theft reads very much like a piece of fiction.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ The thieves had all the time to visit the museum.

They paid the tickets.

♪♪♪ They went upstairs.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ To avoid being discovered, they put up a 'works in progress' sign, so that tourists would not go in and discover all that was happening... ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ...removed the painting, and put it on the floor... ♪♪♪ ...cut out the canvas from its frame... ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ...rolled it, and threw it out into the street from the adjacent balcony.

♪♪♪ -Then it seems that an American tourist came to see the 'Saint Jerome.'

She saw the chain, she got annoyed, she went to complain with the curator.

The curator went up and, obviously, got the shock of his life, because the Caravaggio wasn't there, just an empty frame lying on the floor.

♪♪♪ Well, this is how it all started -- I got a phone call.

That was the wife of the curator of Saint John's, and she said, 'Something terrible has happened.'

I couldn't even make out what she was saying.

So I said, 'Let me speak to your husband.'

And Mr. Cutajar came on the phone.

and they said these words -- 'They've stolen our Caravaggio.'

♪♪♪ And I was afraid he would have a heart attack because he was so -- I mean, it was such a terrible shock for him.

-We went there, we found a frame without -- without a painting.

There was very little evidence pointing to these people at that material moment in time in 1984.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -The Maltese islands are strategically located at the heart of the Mediterranean.

More often than not, the history of the islands is also the history of the Mediterranean.

Let's go back in time, when the Order of Saint John is granted the islands in fief by King Charles V of Spain.

-The Knights of the Order of Saint John descended from some of the most important noble families of Europe, and they were certainly accustomed to living a life of luxury, having around them the best works of art that they could obtain.

They were people of means.

-Three elements come together -- the knights, with a strategic territory in their hands, and the money and willingness to promote culture.

We do know that, by July 1607, Caravaggio was in Malta.

There's only one thing that comes to mind when I think about this genius -- he was an 'enfant terrible.'

-Because he got into trouble with the law so often, we still do have some records from his court hearings.

And, normally, it is the other witnesses who would describe him, that he had this long, black, curly hair, and he had dark black eyes, and he strutted around Rome with a sword.

And he would very often disappear for two months and just throw himself into a work of art.

And then, after that, spend another month in Rome just walking in the streets, drunk, visiting wine bottegas in the company of courtesans.

So one can see this turbulent character that he had.

-When Caravaggio came to Malta, he was already an accomplished artist.

He was in Rome.

He had already reached a high level of achievement and popularity.

But, unfortunately, his temperamental and violent nature soon got him into trouble, and in a duel, he killed his opponent.

It's unlikely that Caravaggio wanted to kill him.

Apparently, they were rivals for the same courtesan, and his intention, in fact, was to castrate him and not kill him.

And he had to flee from Rome, because there was a bando on his head.

That means there was a price for his head.

-Why did Caravaggio come to Malta?

The main reason is that he wanted to become a knight of Malta, and his friends knew too well that this ambition was too attractive for him to let go.

By doing so, Caravaggio would have hit two birds with one stone -- On one hand, he would have required a papal dispensation, which meant that his crime in Rome would have been forgotten.

On the other hand, he would have become a member of the prestigious Order of Saint John, which also meant that he could carry a sword, a knight to all intents and purposes.

Caravaggio stood out from his fellow artists.

He frequented the taverns, mingled with prostitutes and commoners.

Those same prostitutes that were later to become models and the subject matter of his paintings and his artworks.

-He had a particularly soft spot for courtesans, and he spent a lot of time with them.

Maybe he, in a way, must have had a gracious character with women.

In fact, Fillide, we believe, was this lady that he used many times in portraits -- She is the Saint Catherine, she is often Salome, and we keep on seeing the same face.

So we can see that he had a certain affinity for even low life.

He affiliated himself with these -- with these types of people.

-He had a very particular vision as to how sacred art should be interpreted, and his projects were also met with applause and disdain.

-There was this conflict within the church itself, wanting realism and then finding realism far too shocking for them.

And Caravaggio was often mocked about his realism, and, in fact, he often got into trouble for it.

♪♪♪ When he came here, he obviously wanted to impress the Grand Master.

He was probably also being patronized by some knights that he had come across in Rome, and one of them was Ippolito Malaspina.

Ippolito Malaspina was a very influential knight because he was a Grand Cross.

And for him, he painted the 'Saint Jerome.'

So we see Saint Jerome, seated at his desk.

He's bare-chested because he is exercising penance.

This is why there is a stone on his desk.

And this is where we start to see Caravaggio's ability to enter into the motions of the mind.

When you look at the 'Saint Jerome,' it's almost -- there are moments when you actually forget that it's a painting.

It almost looks like a photograph of a real person.

♪♪♪ Caravaggio really went into great detail.

Again, he challenges himself, he uses a very restricted palette.

There are hardly any colors, except for the red that he uses for his mantle.

He's in a very simple room, at a monk's desk, and on it there are three important symbols.

There is a skull, because he's meditating on death, there is the crucifix, because he's meditating on the life of Christ, and there is a rock.

And he's bare-chested because if he -- if he lacked inspiration, he would use the rock to exercise corporal punishment.

Because a lot of people ask, 'Why -- Why -- Why is he bare-chested?

It's an unusual position for a saint.'

But this is what Caravaggio wanted to portray -- his extreme spirituality, his extreme dedication to religion, and I believe that this is one of his finest paintings, where he really achieved what he wanted the viewer to feel.

-A few days before his masterpiece is officially presented, Caravaggio gets involved in a huge brawl happening in Valletta.

He is immediately arrested as one of the suspects and imprisoned at Fort St. Angelo, from where he mysteriously escapes a few weeks later.

♪♪♪ -Caravaggio does not stop in 1610.

In fact, 'Caravaggism' is a term that we use today to describe the chiaroscuro and his style of painting, and a lot of great masters after him were influenced by him, such as Rubens, who was painting in Rome in 1620, and Rembrandt soon after.

The chiaroscuro and the modeling with light and shade and the realism remained very much a part of art.

♪♪♪ -Caravaggio was controversial during his lifetime, and continued to be so even after his death.

Fast-forward to 1984, and the drama unfolds yet again.

♪♪♪ -When a painting is stolen, anything can happen.

The best museums -- I mean, from Amsterdam, they stole the Van Gogh, from the Marmottan in Paris, they stole the Monet, okay, at one time they stole the 'Mona Lisa.'

So stealing paintings is not a new thing.

In Malta it was exceptional because it was stolen from a church.

-Let's not forget that what we take for granted and as a given, as far as security measures in any museum today, was not the case at this point in time -- no CCTV cameras, no alarm systems, nothing of this sort that would have prevented this crime from happening.

-Obviously, important paintings are well-known, they're published in books, Interpol has got a list of these paintings, and so on, but important paintings are stolen and not recovered, as the famous case of the Palermo Caravaggio.

♪♪♪ -Caravaggio's 'Nativity' in Palermo had been stolen a few years before, and this painting is still on the FBI's list of most wanted stolen works of art.

♪♪♪ -I'm probably one of the few people remaining that really saw it before it was stolen.

It was in a chapel of San Lorenzo.

There was a court case, and there was a pentito from the Mafia, and he said that the Mafia had kept this painting in a room, and the rats had destroyed it.

I never believed this.

I mean, the Mafia are not stupid, okay?

At one time, they say, 'We have another Caravaggio in mind,' and that could be ours.

-It was feared back then that Caravaggio's 'Saint Jerome' would end up very much the same way -- stolen and untraced.

-We heard -- were told that they had phoned Sotheby's or Christie's in London, offering a Caravaggio, and, obviously, they didn't take them seriously because you can't sell a Caravaggio.

In fact, our Caravaggio was in all the books, okay, and we had informed Interpol, so there was no chance of selling it in an auction.

-The thieves didn't actually manage to find a buyer.

Who would touch a work of art like this?

Not even the greediest of collectors.

And that actually is proof that the painting is priceless.

♪♪♪ -Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the 'Saint Jerome,' and it seems that the painting is lost forever.

-For two years, we heard nothing at all.

Two years, we heard nothing at all.

And then one evening, a young man came and knocked at the door... ♪♪♪ ...and he had an envelope, and I could see that inside there was something else.

There was 'personal' written on the envelope.

And I said -- he said, 'I've got a letter from Mr. Borg.'

Everybody's called Mr. Borg in Malta, so I said, 'Who's he?'

He said, 'He lives next to me.'

So I said, 'Thank you,' and he left.

♪♪♪ I opened the envelope, and inside was a smaller envelope.

And on the smaller envelope was written, 'Father, do not open this envelope until you listen to the tape and see that, when you listen to the tape, you are alone,' because in the big envelope, there was also a tape.

Obviously, what I did -- the first thing I did -- I opened the small envelope, and inside it was a Polaroid picture of the 'Saint Jerome' cut off the stretcher with a coffee pot on it.

[ Camera shutter clicks ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ All of a sudden, I mean, I got up, rushed downstairs... ...but he had disappeared.

It was late in the evening.

So he had disappeared in the crowds outside.

Then I listened to the tape.

That was quite frightening.

♪♪♪ The tape said, 'We've got the Caravaggio.

We tried to sell it in Europe, tried to sell it in America.

Are you interested?'

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ They asked for half a million Maltese lire and emphasized the fact that I was not to tell the police, not to tell the press, otherwise, they would burn the tapestries, blow up Saint John's, very unpleasant things.

He gave me his password, 'Merisi.'

And he said that the next week he had to phone me.

In fact, he phoned the next day.

[ Telephone rings ] The happiest day was when this young man brought this letter with the tape.

It was frightening to listen to it.

People say, 'Were you frightened, or were you...?' Said, 'I was really happy,' because after two years with no reports at all about the Caravaggio, and, all of a sudden, we knew that somebody had it, that gave us hope.

I said, 'At least it's still existing, it's still in Malta, and there's a hope of getting it back.'

And it put a heavy load of responsibility on me, because I said -- I thought to myself, I said, 'If we don't manage to get it back, this will be the end of me.'

♪♪♪ -It comes as no surprise that the thieves got in touch with Fr. Marius Zerafa.

Fr. Zerafa was the brains behind the National Museum of Fine Arts in 1974.

At this point in time, he was the Director of the Department of Museums and was an authority acknowledged by the government of the time.

It is also very important to note that Fr. Zerafa is an art historian, who was also responsible for the conservation of artworks belonging to the national collection, including those at Saint John's Co-Cathedral.

♪♪♪ -Unfortunately, I was very disappointed because the government and the monsignor were not really interested.

So I had to carry on on my own and my secretary at the museum.

Whenever I went to the Minister, he would just say, 'Keep the Maltese police out.

Do not involve the Maltese police.'

I got into trouble with the monsignor because the man in charge of Saint John's, I assume, informed the Archbishop of everything, but he was offended because I didn't inform him.

♪♪♪ -The socio-political circumstances of 1980s Malta did not help much.

The theft of Caravaggio's 'Saint Jerome' was certainly not high on the national agenda, simply because the political circumstances of the time took priority.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -If I failed, that would have been the end of me.

And, you know, you're dealing with a Caravaggio.

For me, a Caravaggio means a lot.

So they used to phone me every day, sometimes three times a day.

There was one voice -- 'Merisi.'

And then at one time, another voice came on the phone.

And I said, 'Who are you?'

And then the first man said, 'He's going to take over.'

And from then on, both of them -- you know, I asked him questions to see whether he knew what he was talking about.

And then one time, one person would speak to me, and another time, another person, so there were two people speaking to me all the time on the phone.

At the beginning of all this, the Minister had asked the Italian embassy, and they had brought two officers.

They came over for two days.

They couldn't do much.

They just advised us to keep on talking to the thieves, and they suggested trying to trace the calls, because in Italy it's quite common, okay?

They said, 'Try to trace the calls,' okay?

They said, 'Would you mind having your phone put under control?'

I said, 'Not at all.'

At the time in Malta, we had a very complicated system.

You phone the person, and you got someone else, and so on.

So people gave us all sorts of instruments and things, but they never worked.

-The conversations happening between Fr. Zerafa and the thieves were kept secret, and very few knew what was going on.

-I managed to show them I was interested.

We're haggling on the price.

I managed to lower the price to a third of a million.

So they thought we were really interested.

♪♪♪ They would sort of give me till the end of the month, and then till the end of the week to get the decision.

And every time, I had to invent some sort of excuse.

Eight months of phoning every day, sometimes three times a day, okay?

Sometimes they were being nice to me, and I was nice to them.

Sometimes they were threatening me.

♪♪♪ At one time, they sent me a letter, an envelope, and I thought there was a -- in those days, it was quite popular.

Letter bombs were quite common, and I thought that they wanted to get rid of me because I'd been sort of just talking to them without getting to a conclusion, and I -- I thought they would sort of have their own back on me.

So I had to take this envelope on the roof and attach strings to the envelope and pulled it and so on, and it was just another message.

Every time I went to the Minister, I never got any decent reply.

They would say, 'We've got a plan.

The Prime Minister has got a plan,' but they never told me what that plan was.

-Nobody was taking any action on it.

Zerafa felt that he was shouldering the whole burden.

He would speak to the Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister, at that moment, did not take any action with the police.

So, Zerafa continued to feel the pressure on him.

♪♪♪ -An important point was when I went to the Prime Minister and I said, 'Look, I can't stand this any longer.

I started taking Valium.'

So, he said, 'Okay, you can tell them that we have the money.'


So, I said to them, 'We've got the money.'

So, they said, 'Okay, then we'll bring it back from Italy.'

♪♪♪ And I said, 'Let's have the exchange in Florence.'

The reason is I've lived in Florence.

I know Florence very well, and in Florence, we could get the help of the Italian police.

But they said, 'No, we don't trust them because these people are criminals.'

♪♪♪ So, we asked for newspapers -- photos of newspapers -- with the painting in Florence, and then in Malta, and so on.

So, we knew that it had really come to Malta.

♪♪♪ We had a number of instruments to try to trace the calls.

They would mark the date, but nothing else.

Okay? They just couldn't use them.

Then there was a change of government.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ So, we had a new Minister, we had a new technician, and the technician was more clever, or more lucky.

Before, they had been telling me that the phone calls were coming from the north of Malta.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Telephone ringing ] ♪♪♪ He managed to trace the call to Marsa -- a shoe factory in Marsa.

♪♪♪ As Director, I had a driver from Marsa.

We went to see the place.

I didn't tell him, obviously, the purpose.

♪♪♪ I managed to get him to tell me something about the people who worked in the factory without sort of telling him what I was looking for.

♪♪♪ So, I got to know the kind of people who were phoning me every day.

♪♪♪ At one time, I went to the Ministry, got their workbooks.

♪♪♪ So, I had the names and photographs of the people working in that factory -- the four girls and four men.

♪♪♪ One had stamped on his workbook, 'Returned migrant,' and I thought that since they were phoning all the time, they had to be the head of the factory, somebody who could use the phone any time of the day.

♪♪♪ This factory exported and imported leather from Italy, so they could easily send it to Italy and bring it back.

♪♪♪ So, I informed the Minister, and he said, 'Okay, I'll introduce you to someone who can help you.'

♪♪♪ -When I became Minister of Education and Culture in 1987, a former inspector of police, Alfred Calleja, who had left the police force, at that time asked to come back.

He came to speak to me, and it came to -- by accident -- that he spoke to me on the day when Fr. Zerafa had an appointment to speak to me.

♪♪♪ They were in my office, at the same moment, quite by chance.

But I told Zerafa, 'Look here, if there's somebody in the police force who can help us retrieve the Caravaggio, I believe this is the man.'

♪♪♪ -So, I told him all about my contact with the thieves, the conversation, the bits of canvas they were sending me at the end -- they were sending me bits cut off from the painting to get us to take a decision.

He came here to the priory, we discussed it, and so on, and I said, 'Okay, let's catch them now.'

And I suggested the 4th of August because the 4th of August was the traditional date for the feast of St. Dominic, and I'm a Dominican.

[ Bells ringing ] [ Band playing ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ So, you can imagine the scene in my office at the Auberge de Provence.

For the first time in my life, I had a -- the door was closed.

♪♪♪ My secretary was sort of dishing out whiskey and tea and so on, he was smoking like crazy.

♪♪♪ [ Radio chatter ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ At the same time, there was the Army chief in a helicopter going around.

♪♪♪ -It was agreed the day before that the police would be following him from the ground, and I'd be following him from helicopter.

♪♪♪ And we agreed that to be able to identify the vehicle -- the van -- for him, it would have a fluorescent sign on the roof of the van.

[ Camera shutter clicking ] We start to follow him near the shoe factory.

[ Helicopter blades whirring ] -Zulu 2, preparing to engage.

-Copy that, Zulu 2.

Stand by for further instructions.

♪♪♪ [ Telephone rings ] -They phoned, as they did every day.

♪♪♪ And I said to them, 'There's a lawyer.

Would you like to have a word with him?'

They said, 'Yes, of course.'

♪♪♪ He took up the phone, and he said they were interested.

And he said, 'Cut another piece of the painting and put it somewhere.

Once we find it, we'll give you the money.'

♪♪♪ At one time, the officer next to me spoke to the person on the helicopter, who had said they are taking something out of the factory.

So, he said, 'Come down and arrest of them.'

♪♪♪ I said no -- I held his hand, I said, 'Don't.

Not until we know where the Caravaggio is.'

♪♪♪ All of a sudden, this police officer sitting next to me just got up and walked out.

And I just couldn't imagine what was happening.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ So, I came back to the priory at lunchtime and expected to find this piece of canvas that they had said they had put in the letterbox.

♪♪♪ That was probably the worst moment in the whole episode.

♪♪♪ Normally, I have a lot of letters.

That day, I had no letters at all, and the piece of canvas wasn't there.

So, I said, 'They are playing a trick on us.'

I phoned Mr. Cutajar.

He came over. I was really, really worried.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -The only people who knew about this were the people who were going to be involved in the recovery.

[ Engine starts ] [ Engine revs, tires squeal ] ♪♪♪ [ Indistinct conversation ] ♪♪♪ I could see as well that, in fact, they were getting my message because I could see the police commissioner's car following the van, as well.

[ Tires screech ] -Going after the suspect!

[ Helicopter blades whirring ] -I would tell the commissioner, 'He's going down South Street,' and that sort of thing.

I kept giving him a running commentary.

♪♪♪ And this lasted about two hours -- two hours, if not more.

In fact, we were going to run out of fuel, and we went -- we flew quickly to Luqa, refueled and went up again in the air and continued to chase from there.

♪♪♪ The police commissioner was probably very, very excited, as well, and probably what was going through his mind is that this guy might go back to the factory without the police following him and they'd lose him.

♪♪♪ So, he took this decision halfway down from Castiel.

He says, 'I think it's now or never,' you know, 'I'm going to have to do something about it now.

I'm gonna grab him, and then we'll see afterwards how we're going to get to the painting.'

♪♪♪ [ Tires screech ] He overtook, went in front of the car, rushed out... ♪♪♪ ...and opened the door of the driver side, grabbed the driver out, and pulled him out.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Camera shutter clicking ] ♪♪♪ -And in his pocket, there was this piece of canvas, which he was supposed to have delivered at the priory.

♪♪♪ In his satchel, he had a cutting from the of two years before, when the Caravaggio was stolen.

Okay? So, he couldn't argue.

So, he said, 'Okay, I'll take you to where the painting is.'

He took them to the factory.

♪♪♪ -One fine day during the week, I got a phone call out of the blue.

Remember, we had no mobile phones then.

This was a phone call through my secretary.

My offices then were in another place in Valletta.

I recall my secretary phoning me up and saying, 'Look here, X wants you urgently because there are a lot of police.'

This is what I got on the phone.

And I got my car, I went to the factory, and I found a film scene, if you understand what I mean -- you know, very sensational, what you watch on television over the weekend.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -So, they caught both men.

♪♪♪ -I observed the whole -- the whole matter evolving.

Everybody's smarter afterwards.

I didn't know then that the accused was involved in Caravaggio.

However, thinking back then, you know, some things did not surprise me.

In actual fact, before this blessed day, when the police appeared in the factory, I used to go quite often to this factory, and we used to observe a lot of what we thought were workmen fixing the curbs there and cleaning here and cleaning there.

And this lasted for two weeks.

Afterwards, we concluded that these were police watching the factory.

♪♪♪ -We were called to the crime scene.

We went to the -- I went to the warehouse in Marsa.

I saw the reels of artificial leather.

There were reels of them, and it was hidden in one of those reels.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I flew over police headquarters, took some pictures from there.

I went off to do a helicopter flight, got in a car, and went back to police headquarters.

♪♪♪ -At 3:00 in the afternoon, I heard somebody knocking very loudly at the door.

It was a policeman in service, and he said, 'We've caught them, we've caught them.'

I said, 'What I'm interested in -- do you have the painting?'

So, I got into his car and we rushed to the Police Depot.

And there, there was the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Police -- later the Prime Minister -- came in, and the whole group that had been involved in this recovery.

♪♪♪ -I felt triumphant in the Police Depot.

This painting, which had been lost, and we had retrieved it.

I was proud that it happened under my watch.

-More important than anything else was the canvas -- the 'Saint Jerome' -- rolled in a roll of leather.

-It's sad that the 'Saint Jerome' was damaged the way it was, with cutting it and rolling it, because some of the paint had actually chipped off.

-The thieves rolled the painting the other way around -- they rolled the painting with the color inside, not on the outside, and consequently, parts of the painting, especially on the flesh tones, where you have the presence of lead white, was flaking, and most of it was also lifting.

So, that was a very serious type of damage.

♪♪♪ -You could see it was damaged, but at least it was there.

So, I think that was the happiest day in my life.

I practically fainted.

And there were a lot of speeches -- ministers, the Prime Minister.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -After, they were arrested -- the thieves -- so I thought that was end on the matter.

What happened was that it seems that somebody told them not to deny anything because their phones had been tapped.

So, they started the case saying that the government had no authority to trace calls.

Both parties had raised -- had used this tracing, of course, but both parties denied it.

Finally, they came out and they said it was necessary, but that was the only way of catching them.

♪♪♪ So, they took advantage of this and started a constitutional case, and that is the first time that I met them.

I remember one of them, actually -- I was in court, and there was this young man looking rather pale, and there was a friend of mine looking after him.

And he said, 'What are you doing here?'

He said 'cause he's on drugs.

-It was this gentleman who actually managed to get the Caravaggio back to Malta.

This Caravaggio was doing the rounds all over Europe.

My personal opinion is that the theft was orchestrated by foreigners.

The person I'm discussing, who was eventually accused but never found guilty -- you know, there was just -- there was just charges put against him.

You know, I mean, he was not a thief -- he was a very artistic person, as I said -- however, he was no thief.

And the theft was so professionally done that it couldn't have been him.

I wouldn't believe that, that he would have actually stolen the Caravaggio.

♪♪♪ Without making a hero out of our friend, it is with hindsight I, in my heart of hearts, believe that he wasn't -- definitely not what the media thought about him then.

I'm sure that he wasn't being seen in a good light then.

Unfortunately, died just when the case started, he died.

He died a tragic death.

-And his brother said in the papers that the people who are bringing flowers for the funeral were the people who were responsible for all of this.

♪♪♪ And then there was a third man.

That was interesting because when it was all over, I was with a -- this policeman, who by then had become Commissioner of Police.

And we're good friends.

And he said, 'Let me tell you something interesting.'

He said, 'You were going to be kidnapped.'

He said, 'They've paid 5,000 pounds to a certain' -- gave me the name -- 'to kidnap you during the exchange.'

And I didn't take it seriously.

I started laughing because I said, 'Now it's over.'

They are in, sort of -- been arrested and everything.

But he said, 'It's no laughing matter,' he said, 'because this man is a dangerous -- a very dangerous person.'

♪♪♪ It wasn't shown to the public for months and months.

It was kept at the police headquarters.


When we found it -- the first time we found it, it was taken to the police headquarters.

We put it in a box with strict orders -- not nobody would touch it at all because it was obviously a canvas, was unstretched, very fragile.

So, the police were given orders not to open the box.

In fact, they opened it.

♪♪♪ Some very shocking things happened.

When we took it to Rome to be restored, I managed to get -- I was very friendly with the Italian embassy, and they offered to let me use a military plane.

They said nobody, no civilian, can travel with it.

I insisted, so they said, 'You've got to sign.

In case anything happens, we are not responsible.'

It was a terrible flight. There was no seating.

I had to stand up like that, and there was the 'Saint Jerome' in a box.

I remember, we arrived at Ciampino airport.

I remember the officer there saying you can't import paintings.

I said, 'This is not a painting, this is a Caravaggio.'


Then, I delivered it to the authorities in Rome for restoration, and a year later, I went up with the Minister, expecting to see it ready.

They had not even opened the box.

Then, after a long time, it was restored.

I went up again with the Minister to bring it back.

The Italian minister wanted to come back to Malta with it.

So, we were at Ciampino airport celebrating, everybody drinking champagne and so on.

The plane arrived, the painting was in a box inside another box, and I realized that the box was too big to get into the plane -- special plane that had been sent.

So, at the last minute, I had to unscrew the box, take out the painting, and hold it by my side.

So, it was a tragedy from beginning to end.

♪♪♪ -I do remember well when it came back, and we went with Fr. Zerafa to the Depot, where the painting was placed in its decorative frame.

If you look at close range, one could identify the intervention done by the restorer -- there are scientific ways how to do it -- and the original paint layer created by Caravaggio, because the two events are separate.

♪♪♪ What the restorers did is an imprint of this drama that the painting went through in the 1980s.

♪♪♪ -There is a silver lining to this story, which has led to the greater appreciation of Caravaggio's arts.

The country has since then come a long way in the appreciation of its cultural heritage, to which this masterpiece belongs.

-For art historians -- but not just -- a painting serves as a primary source.

Not only do we learn more about the artist who produced it, the location it was destined for, the patron who commissioned it, but also teaches us more about the context it was created in.

And that is why Caravaggio's 'Saint Jerome' is so important for Malta.

♪♪♪ -Today, tourists travel to Malta to see Caravaggio and appreciate his art and his genius.

♪♪♪ -Looking back on this, it's a sad event for history.

I think it was a tragic comedy, and for me, it was my agony and my ecstasy.

Now I get full satisfaction looking back that in some way, I had helped to restore one of Malta's most important treasures.

-No one was ever convicted of the theft of 'Saint Jerome Writing.'

The two men prosecuted for the crime died before the trial ended.

Today, the painting hangs in the Caravaggio Wing of St. John's Co-Cathedral, where -- under careful protection -- it is viewed by half a million people every year.

Well over 90 years old, Fr. Zerafa still lectures and tells the story of how the Caravaggio was recovered.


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