The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

How we recovered stolen Caravaggio after setting trap for robbers - Ugo Mifsud Bonnici

Neil Camilleri Saturday, 7 March 2015, 08:39 Last update: about 7 years ago

Former President Ugo Mifsud Bonnici was very much involved in the 1987 recovery of a stolen Caravaggio painting. He reveals all in his upcoming autobiography ‘Konvinzjoni u Esperjenza.’ (Conviction and Experience) “The painting of St Jerome writing, by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, was stolen in December 1984, more than two years before I became Minister. Mintoff had had the painting restored some decades earlier and it was later transferred to the St John’s Co-Cathedral Museum. Before, it used to hang in the Cathedral.”

Dr Mifsud Bonnici, who served as PN Minister for seven years and was President of the Republic between 1994 and 1999, was visiting a number of museums in 1987, when he was given information that led to the eventual recovery of the painting.

“When I visited the Arts Museum I was approached by the director, Fr Marius Zerafa, who told me that he had some confidential information. He said he had been receiving phone calls from the people who stole the painting and that they were demanding LM250,000 (€582,342) as ransom from the government.” The robbers threatened that if the sum was not paid, the painting would be torched and the priest would pay dearly.

The priest also told Dr Mifsud Bonnici that his cousin, former Labour Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, knew about the phone calls. “I visited Karmenu, who was in hospital at the time, and he told me that he had authorised the phone company to tap the calls but he had not called in the police. Karmenu said he had told Zerafa that the government could not suddenly come up with the money to pay and we needed more time.”

By chance, Dr Mifsud Bonnici received a visit from Alfred Calleja, an “excellent investigator” who had retired from the police a few years earlier but was re-joining the force. “I told Father Zerafa to help Mr Calleja in any way he asked. They agreed that Zerafa would keep contact with the robbers and lead them to believe that the ransom would be paid. In the meantime, the Armed Forces were instructed to look out for certain movements from their helicopters.”

Eventually, Father Zerafa and the robbers agreed on a meeting place where the painting would be given back in exchange for the ransom. “We were prepared and they walked right into our trap. The robbers were arrested and the Caravaggio was safely recovered. It was a moment of triumph.”

The painting was later sent to Rome for restoration but Dr Mifsud Bonnici was to have an altercation with the Italian minister responsible for the works, who said that the restoration had begun when it had not. “I was not in the habit of lying to Parliament for I had told his fellow MPs that the painting was being restored.”

Finally, Dr Mifsud Bonnici was able to inform Parliament about the successful operation. “When I told Parliament that my cousin, Karmenu had helped me, Mintoff was pleased that I had not decided to bask in the glory alone.”

Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici’s autobiography will be launched on 18 March.

 

Exclusive interview with Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici to be published in The Malta Independent on Sunday tomorrow.

 

 

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