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The theft of precious ornaments from the Castellani jewelry collection at the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, on the eve of Easter in 2013, was the stuff of the edgiest heist movie.
At about 11:15 p.m., three hooded men sneaked in through the museum’s garden, while another acted as a lookout. They sealed various doors — including the room from which the custodians kept watch — with chains and threw tear gas canisters throughout the gallery’s halls, “to create panic,” recalled Ezio Belloni, one of the custodians on duty that night.
Mr. Belloni was in a much finer mood on Tuesday, when Italian officials held a news conference to announce the conclusion of what Italy’s carabinieri art theft squad called “Operation Villa Giulia,” which led to the recovery of the stolen artifacts, as well as the identification of the thieves, who are now standing trial in Rome.
“In the end it turned out well,” Mr. Belloni said in an interview at the museum, while carabinieri and museum officials posed for photos in front of a vitrine with the recovered artifacts.
“This is one of those cases where if I detailed six years of investigation, no one would get bored,” Tiziana Cugini, the Rome prosecutor who pursued the case, said.
“It’s complicated, full of twists and turns,” she said.
That night, the thieves headed for the room that housed the Castellani collection, a priceless — and unique — array of antique jewelry dating from the seventh century B.C. through ancient Etruscan, Greek and Roman ornaments that the Castellani family of Roman jewelers collected, copied and reworked in the 19th century. The collection, which was donated to the museum 100 years ago, showcases both the ancient and the 19th-century works.
What the thieves had not counted on was that the custodians would be quick to alert the police after alarms went off. So it was not long after the break-in that the sound of approaching police sirens forced them to make a hasty getaway.
Mr. Belloni recalled making the rounds of the museum that night to examine the damage, and finding two vitrines in the Castellani room smashed to pieces, their content gone. The thieves had made off with about two dozen pieces from the 19th century collection.
“Honestly, it was terrible to see that destruction,” Mr. Belloni said.
Convinced that the theft had been commissioned, investigators set their sights at one point on a Russian woman who had expressed a keen interest in the collection. She had told antiquarians that she was “willing to pay any price for the collection,” said Massimo Maresca, the former commander in charge of archaeological thefts for the carabinieri art squad.
The Russian woman was stopped at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport en route to Russia after the theft, and the police found photographs of the collection on her cellphone, as well as of the security cameras in the room that housed the exhibit and of the museum’s exits. The police did not have enough evidence to arrest the woman and she was eventually allowed to leave for Russia.
Investigators eventually concluded that the perpetrators were not specialized art thieves, he said, “but common thieves who dealt in robberies and drug deals.”
The thieves, recognizing that the artifacts were hot, divided them up and tried to sell them on the black market. “Those attempts were unsuccessful,” Ms. Cugini, the prosecutor, said. The police were able to recover all of the stolen objects a little at a time over the course of five years.
Investigators still suspect that the thieves were working on behalf of someone who wanted the jewelry, but they do not know who was behind the theft.
The stolen jewels were restored before being returned to the collection. “Some have slight scars from the theft, a missing pearl here or there, but we’re fine with that,” said Maria Paola Guidobaldi, a conservator at the museum.
She said she thinks the 19th-century jewels were the real object of the theft.
“The ancient jewels were collectors items, but the more modern ones could be worn, even if they are flashy,” Ms. Guidobaldi said. “But maybe they would have taken them all had they not been interrupted.”
Valentino Nizzo, the director of Villa Giulia, said that the museum had improved its security systems after the theft, “to ensure that this never happens again.” Even so, he added, Italy’s culture officials face a daunting task on a daily basis — “protecting an immense patrimony, even though we are often understaffed, is not easy,” he said.