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Italy mayor calls for return for art on display at Cleveland Museum of Art

Believes piece is same one stolen in Italy in 1905
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Posted at 5:34 PM, Jul 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-06 19:33:45-04

CLEVELAND — An Italian mayor where a 16th century altarpiece was stolen in 1905 told News 5 a push is underway to retrieve what they believe is the lost masterpiece, currently located in Cleveland, Ohio.

"It has become an important issue for our town and for our community," Figline Valderno mayor Guilia Mugnai said. "It is a part of our collective memory, so it would be very important to us to have it back."

Last month, a News 5 investigation highlighted the resemblance between a Benedetto Buglioni altarpiece on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a Benedetto Buglioni artifact listed in Italy’s database of illegally stolen cultural assets, run by the Carabinieri, one of Italy's main law enforcement agencies.

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Italy's Data Bank of illegally stolen cultural assets, lists a Benedetto Buglioni sculpture featuring Maddona holding the Infant Jesus with Saints Francis and Giovanni Gualberto as stolen and not recovered.

Since then, multiple international news outlets cited News 5's report and renewed interest in the altarpiece's return.

"It has gained a lot of attention from our people here and also from citizens all over Tuscany," Mugnai explained. "We have the impression it is the same piece of art totally and completely similar to the one who was stolen with just little differences, maybe because of the necessity to not make the masterpiece recognizable."

Newspaper articles from 1905 highlight how a Buglioni altarpiece was stolen one night from a chapel in Ponte Agli Stolli, a village in Tucsany known as Figline Valdarno which is less than an hour south of Florence.

"For generations, families have passed down stories, legends and devotional practices towards the Virgin Mary and the Saints depicted in the bas-relief," Mugnai added. "The memory of the theft itself also became part of the oral tradition, the youngest learning it from their grandparents’ memories."

Benedetto Buglioni's "Virgin with Child Enthroned with Saints Francis and Giovanni Gualberto" stands nearly 6 feet tall and can be found in the Cleveland Museum of Art's Italian Renaissance exhibit.

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Benedetto Buglioni's "Virgin with Child Enthroned with Saints Francis and Giovanni Gualberto" currently on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Research done by the museum highlights how Cleveland Museum of Art founder Jeptha Homer Wade II bought the piece in 1921 after it was previously owned by a German art dealer from 1911 to 1914 and confiscated by the French government.

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The museum’s description of the altarpiece mentions that research shows this specific artifact was located at one point at a chapel in Ponte Agli Stolli in 1749.

When it comes to a possible recovery of the artwork, Mugnai told News 5 that Italy's Ministry of Culture would need to be the agency to formally request its return, since the municipality of Figline Valdarno is not the owner of the work.

"However, we would welcome the possibility for our community to admire the bas-relief in those places that have hosted it for centuries," she added. "We are very interested in having back this these bas-relief and we are waiting for an answer from the minister."

In a translated statement, a spokesperson with the ministry sent the following statement:

“The investigation is still confidential and therefore it is not possible to issue statements.”
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A look inside the chapel at Ponte Agli Stolli. Senator Corrado told News 5 that a contemporary artist was asked to create a sculpture vaguely similar to the disappearance to occupy the space where Buglioni's work was once placed, given how much of a long time object of devotion to the community it was.

News 5 reached out to the Cleveland Museum of Art after the initial report and a spokesperson reiterated their earlier statement:

“The museum has had cordial relationships with the Italian authorities and has no indication that this is a pending issue for them.”