KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In Italy, art and artifacts are everywhere - in museums, in the excavation sites and often unguarded churches - and that invites art thieves. But thanks to an elite police unit, Italy is at the forefront in combating the trafficking of stolen art. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The fifth grade class of a Roman elementary school is visiting a special museum exhibit - 200 stolen artworks that were recovered by the police unit for protection of Italy's cultural heritage. Lieutenant Sebastiano Antoci tells the kids how their investigations work.
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SEBASTIANO ANTOCI: (Through interpreter) We tail suspects. We use wire taps so we can listen to bad guys' phone calls. We check their bank accounts. And when we're out in the field, we look like everyone else. We don't wear uniforms.
POGGIOLI: In 1969, Italy created the first police unit to combat art crime. It now numbers 280 agents who also safeguard artworks in regions struck by floods or earthquakes. And they combat antiquities trafficking fueled by conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Lieutenant Antoci shows the schoolchildren a magnificent piece originating from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which has been under ISIS control. The marble sculpture dating from the first or second century A.D. depicts a man and his two sons.
ANTOCI: (Through interpreter) The terrorists smuggled it out of Syria and put it on the illicit market. We tracked it down to an Italian businessman who bought it a few months ago.
POGGIOLI: So what's needed to become a good art sleuth?
FABRIZIO PARULLI: First of all, you need to be a good investigator.
POGGIOLI: General Fabrizio Parullo is the commander of this unique police force. His agents start as police officers and then get specialized training.
PARULLI: I have in my unit also people that has background as a archeologist, as a historian of art. So people that knows very well about these art worlds.
POGGIOLI: The investigative work is done in a large barracks in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. Sitting at a computer screen, Lieutenant Francesco Ficarella demonstrates the jewel in the crown of the cultural heritage protection squad, a database known as Leonardo.
FRANCESCO FICARELLA: (Through interpreter) It's a crucial instrument, not only for our national police forces, but also for those abroad. It's the biggest artworks database in the world.
POGGIOLI: Leonardo contains close to 6 million registered artworks. More than a million are listed as stolen, missing, illegally excavated or smuggled. The squad's recovery record is high. In 2014, it managed to recover close to 140,000 works with an estimated value of $500 million. Until the return to the owners, they're stored on the ground floor - racks of paintings, wooden crucifixes, marble busts and bronze statues, all carefully labeled. These recovered pieces serve as evidence in criminal cases that are still open.
Yet there's one item that has eluded the art squad for almost three decades. The six-foot-square canvas of the Nativity by the baroque master Caravaggio was stolen in Sicily in 1969, the same year this special unit was created. Lieutenant Calogero Gliozzo says its whereabouts were known until the early 1980s.
CALOGERO GLIOZZO: (Through interpreter) We know the names of the robbers, and we know the mafia family that was hiding it. But then there was a mafia war, and we lost track of the painting.
POGGIOLI: One Mafia turncoat told police he'd heard the canvas had been destroyed by rats in a farm where was hidden. But here at the police squad, the art detectives are convinced the masterpiece still exists and that one day they will succeed in recovering this number one artwork on their most wanted list. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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