Fakes used to fight art theft

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The Independent Online

Traditional foes, Italy's art police and the country's master forgers have joined forces to fight art theft. They have collaborated in an exhibition of fakes of missing works in the hope of turning up fresh evidence regarding the originals' whereabouts.

Traditional foes, Italy's art police and the country's master forgers have joined forces to fight art theft. They have collaborated in an exhibition of fakes of missing works in the hope of turning up fresh evidence regarding the originals' whereabouts.

"It's a 'conscience-raising' initiative," says General Roberto Conforti, head of the Carabinieri's cultural heritage protection unit. "Maybe someone will see one of the copies and realise that what they've got on their living-room wall is not as innocent as they thought - or the dealer who sold it to them was not as honest as they thought."

Working with the Pitti Arte forgers' co-operative, run by art expert Giuseppe Salzano, General Conforti has commissioned forgeries of 10 important works stolen from Italian churches, museums and private collections over the past three decades.

Among the forged works on display is a Caravaggio nativity scene, the original of which was stolen in 1969 from the San Lorenzo Oratory in the heart of the Sicilian capital, Palermo. Investigators believe it was filched by the Mafia, either with the intention of holding it for ransom or on the orders of a boss who wanted it to display on his own walls.

The other fakes include Renoir's Seaside Stroll, which was stolen in Milan in 1975, Giovanni Fattori's Watchtower and Cavalry, which went missing in 1981, and Jesus and Saint Joseph by the 17th-century painter Gerard van Honthorst, known as "Gherardo delle Notti" (Gerard of the Night) for the beautiful candlelit scenes he perfected, which was also lifted in 1975.

The exhibition, running at Rome's Excelsior Gallery until the end of January, also features forgeries of works that have not been stolen. Faked Klimts hang beside forged Monets, Van Goghs and Renoirs. All are for sale, but at a fraction of the price the original would cost. A copy of Van Gogh's Irises, for example, will set you back a mere £1,000.

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