Until January, only one other person had pulled off a burglary at Doge’s Palace, the seat of power during Venice’s years as a republic, and a museum since 1923.
In 1991, Vincenzo Pipino, nicknamed the “gentleman thief” for the polite way in which he pursued his criminal exploits, spent most of a night hidden in a cell in the New Prisons building next door, carefully calculating a security guard’s manoeuvres. At his chosen moment, Pipino slipped out and walked across the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the prisons to the palace. From there, he entered the Consoli room, took the highly valuable Madonna col Bambino (Madonna with Child), painted in the early 1500s, covered it with a blanket and sauntered out of the building through a side door.
The theft in January of €2m (£1.7m) worth of jewellery owned by a member of Qatar’s royal family on the final day of an exhibition of Mughal and Maharaja treasures bore all the hallmarks of the Pipino heist – slick, free from violence, and successful.
“When I did my robbery, there was only one security guard,” Pipino, 75, told the Guardian this week. “Security has improved a lot since then … but something was amiss. Possibly there were cracks in the alarm system, maybe the alarms weren’t modern enough.”
January’s thieves managed to deactivate an alarm system, break into a reinforced case in the Chamber of the Scrutinio – an immense room on the building’s second floor – steal some earrings and a brooch, and melt into a crowd of tourists. Police were so perplexed they were forced to call in experts from Rome.
Vito Gagliardi, the chief police commissioner, said at the time that the reinforced case, which was provided by the Qatari curators, had been opened like a tin can. Officers suspected the thieves had scoped out the vast palace, which attracts up to 4,000 visitors a day, before seizing the right moment. Two of the suspects were seen on CCTV.
On 9 November, 11 months after the heist, there was a breakthrough when five people were arrested in Croatia. In a further unexpected twist, one of the suspects briefly escaped custody, reportedly by climbing out of a bathroom window at a police station in the Croatian town of Tovarnik. He was later intercepted trying to cross the nearby border into Serbia.
Another of the captured suspects is said to be part of the Pink Panthers, an international network of jewel thieves. Investigators had been hunting for the man after €10m of jewels were stolen from a 2011 exhibition in Basel, Switzerland.
The mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, said justice had been delivered “to those who thought they could commit a crime in Venice and get away with it”.
Pipino, who spent 20 years in jail for about 3,000 art thefts across Venice, said he believed the suspects had help from a collaborator within the palace,but the police have not said the same publicly.
They say it would be impossible to sell the jewels on the black market because they were so well known. Pipino concurred: “Unless the pieces are removed and sold separately, they are unsellable.”
He said he had had no intention of selling the painting when he took it from the palace. He was working on behalf of Felice Maniero, the boss of the Mala del Brenta organised crime group, who wanted to use the work as a ransom to secure the release of his cousin from prison. The tactic worked: the painting was returned and his cousin set free within weeks.
Pipino insisted he only ever “robbed from the rich to give to the poor” or stole in order to get a favour, in one case to obtain a coveted berth for his boat.
“I gave everything back,” he said. “If I had just 1% of what I stole over my career I would be rich … but if I had 1% of what I donated to the poor, I would be even richer.”
Seen as something of a hero in Venice, Pipino also earned the nickname ‘Italy’s most trusted thief’ for the non-violent and tidy way in which he carried out his trade. Some targets even regarded a visit by Pipino as a compliment to their good taste.
“I only every worked with my brain and my hands, never guns,” he said.
Having grown up in poverty, Pipino said the alleyways of Venice became his “teacher” after he was expelled from school for fighting with the son of a pharmacist who refused to give him the core of his apple to eat.
In a book by the journalist Stefano Lorenzetto called Hic Sunt Leones: Venticinque Storie di Veneti Notevoli (Here Be Lions: 25 Stories of Notable Venetians), Pipino described how he was placed in a psychiatric ward before being released and sent to work in a mortuary. While working in a bakery at the age of eight he began to steal pastries.
Nowadays Pipino, who has also been accused of drug dealing, which he denies vehemently, and credit card fraud, is consulted by wealthy people looking to make their homes more secure. “I’ll go along to their homes and look at the windows. They tell me: ‘This in an anti-intrusion window,’ and I say: ‘No it isn’t, I can open it within seconds.’”