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What I Learned – Investigators Recover Jewels Taken From Rome’s Etruscan Museum

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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.

A 19th century necklace based on antique jewelry in the Castellani collection.CreditNational Etruscan Museum Villa Giulia

“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.


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