Getting into the church was easy. The thieves probably walked in through the front door, posing as a few more of the faithful who come to bow their heads in St. John the Evangelist, the most important church in Capranica, 35 miles (56 km) north of Rome. They hid, waited to be locked in after the last people left, then went to work. They ignored the candlesticks, the alms box and the communion chalice: those are for amateurs easy to grab, easy to sell. These were professionals, and they were after something specific: the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, 14 paintings each depicting a moment in Jesus' final hours. Painted in oil by an anonymous 18th century artist, these scenes were the church's most glorious features, its aesthetic soul. And on the black market, they could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The thieves removed the framed canvases from the walls and lowered them through a window to the side street below. When they were done, they left the church through a tunnel that only a few people knew about. Once outside, they vanished, along with the paintings.
That was November 2006, and Capranica's Stations of the Cross are still missing. During pre-Easter celebrations, when parishioners would traditionally recite all 14 stations using the paintings as their guide, they had to pray before 14 small wooden crosses instead. The theft has left Capranica's small community with a sense of loss that is deep and personal, as if an old friend had disappeared. "We grew up with those paintings," says Marina, who owns a card shop across from St. John. "Yesterday," adds her mother Maria, "I was looking at those nude walls and I felt as if someone had broken into my own home."
Millions of parishioners already know the feeling. Every year, thousands of churches, chapels and monasteries across Europe are robbed of their most beloved and valuable artworks. From small-time crooks trying to earn drug money to seasoned pros who snatch massive canvases, art thieves are erasing a significant part of the religious heritage of some of the most culturally rich countries. "Our churches are being pillaged," says Captain Dominique Lambert of France's Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC). "They take everything statues, paintings, chalices, silverwork. When a Virgin Mary is stolen from a church after being there since the Middle Ages, that can't leave you indifferent."
There are no reliable statistics on stolen art, since few countries have the motivation or the manpower to compile them. But information from Interpol, which collects data from member nations that volunteer it, helps give a sense of the scope of the problem. According to the most recent Interpol statistics, there were 1,785 reports of artwork stolen from places of worship in 2005, mainly in Italy, France and Russia. While that's only half the number reported stolen from private homes, it's a huge tally compared to the 281 robberies from museums and 232 from art galleries and dealers that same year. And according to anecdotal evidence from police investigators, the number of reported art thefts from churches is holding steady or, in many cases, rising. In France, for example, the OCBC has recorded a 62% drop in stolen-art reports since 2002 yet every year, thefts from churches hover between 200 and 300. "If it continues at the current rate," says Lambert, "in 20 or 30 years, there won't be anything left."
Sacred art has always been big business. Both the legal and illegal art markets are flooded with icons and artifacts that were stolen from holy sites in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But the targeting of Christian art in Europe is relatively new, dating back only a few decades. Conflicts in Cyprus in the '70s, and in Yugoslavia in the '90s, along with the breakup of the Soviet Union, provided a fertile environment for widespread looting of religious art and icons, which have continued to flood the black market. At the same time, cheaper security systems have made it harder to steal from museums, galleries and homes. By comparison, Europe's unprotected churches offer easy pickings. Meanwhile, the one thing that churches have relied upon for centuries to protect them is no longer quite the deterrent it used to be. "The fear of God doesn't exist anymore," laments Father Paolo Picca, pastor of the SS. Salvatore church in Velletri, Italy. "The thieves don't fear anyone, except maybe the police when they come to get them."
Nestled into a cliffside in the Greek mountains, just outside Leonidio, 120 miles (193 km) from Athens, the Elona Monastery doesn't usually get many visitors. But for one week of the year, it is packed. Every August, when Orthodox Christians celebrate the life of Jesus' mother, thousands of worshippers stream in, drawn by a 700-year-old gold-encrusted, jewel-covered painting of Mary and Jesus, which is said to hold miraculous healing powers.
The small painting is one of Greece's most sacred icons. So when, one morning in August 2006, the monastery's Mother Superior followed a breeze to the back of the church and discovered that the painting was missing its pine-and-resin cradle empty, climbing ropes dangling outside a broken window she fell to her knees and prayed.
The icon was recovered a month later, after one of the thieves called with a $1.7 million demand and the police tracked him down. But the theft sent a chilling message that nothing is sacred. Greece is known as a tomb raider's paradise, with thieves plucking archaeological treasures straight from the ground. And while this looting is still one of the biggest challenges for the country's art squad, the theft of religious art is eclipsing it. In 2005, 333 liturgical items were reported stolen in Greece, compared with only eight archaeological artifacts. "There's a fresh fad for Byzantine icons," says Giorgos Gligoris, head of Greece's art squad. "We expect the severity of these robberies to increase."
Gligoris walks into a squalid room in the national police headquarters. Byzantine statues, antique candleholders and other religious items are scattered about all recoveries from recent thefts. According to Gligoris, religious artworks can change hands up to five times, in several different countries, before reaching a collector's shelf. "Usually," he says, "it's a job conducted by a criminal who wants to make a quick buck after hearing about or spotting a priceless treasure that's easily accessible."
The U.S. is home to the world's largest art market, so it follows that a lot of stolen art from churches and elsewhere eventually ends up there. That is, if it doesn't go to England (Europe's biggest art market), Japan, Russia, India or any number of other nations with deep-pocketed collectors. Once a stolen work crosses into another country, varying and often contradictory laws mean it can get trapped in legislative red tape for years, sometimes indefinitely. Better international cooperation is high on the wish lists of many an art squad. "The difficulty is convincing our European partners that we need to work together to fight this scourge," says Lieut. Colonel Pierre Tabel, head of the OCBC. "If these countries are not going to effectively control their art market, well, we can't do it for them."
Greece, for one, has stopped wishing and started doing. In May, it entered a landmark pact with Switzerland, which, thanks to its reputation for financial discretion, has long been a favorite stopover for thieves moving hot goods onto the global black market. Swiss law allows shipments to sit in its free-port zone for up to five years without going through customs. But now, with this agreement in hand, if Greek authorities suspect a consignment may contain stolen art, they can ask the Swiss police to search it. Italy is looking to seal a similar deal with Switzerland.