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It’s a superb premise worthy of an Abel Ferrara thriller: a posh, ageing English antiquities and ancient coins dealer, William Veres, is in trouble with the law, ensnared in a police investigation into the trafficking of looted antiquities in the homeland of the Cosa Nostra(Sicilian mafia). It’s only a matter of time before he’s charged and faces extradition to Italy and a jail sentence. He says he’s innocent, but a big-time art smuggler was the best man at his wedding.

He’s got one way out. If he can solve the mystery of one of the most notorious art crimes of all time, the theft of a masterpiece by Caravaggio—Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609)—from a church in Palermo, the Carabinieri will let him off the hook.

Vanity Fair, Economist and Financial Times journalist Simon Willis shadows Veres as he leverages his underworld contacts across Europe to find the missing altarpiece, which was stolen in 1969 and has an estimated current market value of $100m. The show alternates between interviews with a range of characters, including shady mafiosi-types, A-List art crime investigators, the Dutch art detective Arthur Brand, the Chasing Aphrodite author Jason Felch and the Chasing the Mafia author and Sicilian mafia expert Anna Sergi. It slides from flashback backstory to the present-tense investigation, and between background history on the mafia and a piecing together of the fragments—that word is a clue!—of the history of the painting since its theft, which goes a little beyond what the police know. The narrative has got more twists than a piece of old rope.

The Professor: The Hunt for the Mafia’s Missing Masterpiece is the latest in a blossoming subgenre in the podcast ecosystem comprising stories about art crime and looted antiquities. This thread arguably began with the hit Last Seen about the theft from the Gardner Museum in Boston, and includes—full disclose—my own series Art Bust, as well as Project Brazen’s superlative series about the British antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, who is nicknamed Dynamite Doug and who allegedly made millions from selling stolen Cambodian artefacts. The television documentary market’s addiction to obsequious celebrity and gory true crime subjects has been a gift to podcasters who have found an audience for less commercially compromised and more editorially independent story-telling.

The Professor is a compelling listen, gathering pace after the first episode. While the outcome might not be as neat as a Hollywood movie, it captures with great verve the smoke-and-mirrors atmosphere and the grubby underbelly of the art and antiquities trade, where no one can be trusted, and behind every apparent motive there is surely another.

Veres is an ambiguous character who gives weight to my suspicion that the trade in looted antiquities has been underpinned by dealers’ belief that an ‘ask no questions, tell no lies’ approach confers innocence. “I once asked Bill,” says Arthur Brand referring to William Veres, ‘how many mobsters do you know in Sicily?’ He said, ‘Officially none because it is not like they are dressed in uniform.’” That era is no more thanks to the legal requirements for due diligence brought in via EU AML directives and extension of America’s Banking Secrecy Act.

Commendably, Willis doesn’t shirk from questioning the role of art detectives, who frequently pay money to retrieve stolen art works. That is technically illegal, though I am not sure it is as egregious as Willis implies. In the context of crimes without human injury and also considering the limited resources of the police, payments to recover stolen art, whether from insurance companies or art detectives, are widely tolerated as a lesser evil.

The podcast’s greatest thematic strength lies in the richly detailed answer it offers to the often-posed question of why organised criminal gangs steal art when they don’t have much of a chance of selling it.

  • The Professor: Hunting for the Mafia’s Missing Masterpieceis out now via Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast providers
  • Ben Lewis is currently making a podcast about the Museum of the Bible in Washington, and its acquisition of looted antiquities, for producers Telltale Industries and BBC Radio 4

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