Italian police foil art heist by switching £2.5m masterpiece for fake before thieves steal it

It sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie.

In a deception to rival the convoluted plots of thrillers such as The Thomas Crown Affair, a gang of Italian thieves were fooled into stealing a worthless painting.

And even the mayor and other townsfolk were in on the plot.

Italian police switched a 17th century canvas by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Younger – worth around 3million euros (£2.6m) – from a church and replaced it with a fake.

Detectives in the town of Castelnuovo Magra, in Liguria, had got wind of the planned heist and secretly installed security cameras at Santa Maria Maddalena church.

They are now studying the footage after robbers broke in to the church with a crowbar and smashed the artwork’s display case with a hammer.

Italian police switched a 17th century canvas by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Younger - worth around 3million euros (£2.6m) - from a church and replaced it with a fake

Italian police switched a 17th century canvas by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Younger - worth around 3million euros (£2.6m) - from a church and replaced it with a fake

Italian police switched a 17th century canvas by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Younger – worth around 3million euros (£2.6m) – from a church and replaced it with a fake

They sped off in a white Peugeot with the painting – a depiction of the Crucifixion – at lunchtime on Wednesday.

Mayor Daniele Montebello – who was in on the ruse – initially told reporters that the painting was ‘a work of inestimable value, a hard blow for our community’.

But he later revealed: ‘The original painting was replaced by a copy more than a month ago.

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‘We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri (Italy’s paramilitary police force) brought in the fake and installed security cameras.’

He also thanked members of the church who had ‘noticed that the one on display was not the original, but did not reveal the secret’.

Detectives in the town of Castelnuovo Magra, in Liguria, had got wind of the planned heist and secretly installed security cameras at Santa Maria Maddalena church (pictured)

Detectives in the town of Castelnuovo Magra, in Liguria, had got wind of the planned heist and secretly installed security cameras at Santa Maria Maddalena church (pictured)

Detectives in the town of Castelnuovo Magra, in Liguria, had got wind of the planned heist and secretly installed security cameras at Santa Maria Maddalena church (pictured) 

Pieter Bruegel the Younger was the son of another Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The 26in by 17in canvas is a copy of a work by his father.

The painting – donated to the church by a wealthy family in the 19th century – was stolen nearly 40 years ago.

It was later found in the home of a convicted criminal who had just been released from jail.

They are now studying the footage after robbers broke in to the church with a crowbar and smashed the artwork’s display case with a hammer

They are now studying the footage after robbers broke in to the church with a crowbar and smashed the artwork’s display case with a hammer

They are now studying the footage after robbers broke in to the church with a crowbar and smashed the artwork’s display case with a hammer

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