Italian town begs the Cleveland Museum for their cross back, per favore

Illegally sold in the 1960s, it was bought by the US museum in good faith but the Italians would like it returned


An important Gothic crucifix which disappeared from a small Italian town in the 1960s is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. How it got there is a complex story.

The Museum’s Bulletin for 1978 features a photograph of a gothic processional crucifix acquired by the Museum on the open market in 1977. Originally commissioned around 1375 for the Church of the Apostles Peter and Andrew in Trequanda, a small town south of Siena, the crucifix, in gilt copper and decorated with enamels, disappeared from the church some time between 1960 and 1970. All that remains is an older photograph in an inventory compiled by the Siena Soprintendenza in 1917.

Investigating officers of the Italian special carabinieri art protection squad, together with the present parish priest of the church in Trequanda, don Luigi Grilli, have been attempting to reconstruct the crucifix’s recent history. By searching through the church’s own inventories, Father Grilli discovered that the crucifix was definitely already missing from the church in the mid-Sixties. Subsequent research at the Diocesan headquarters unearthed correspondence between the then parish priest, don Lido Benvenuti, and monsignor Lido Lucioli. The letters reveal that the cross was probably temporarily consigned by the parish to Monsignor Lucioli, and was improperly sold on to a Florentine antiques dealer. Since both the clergymen involved are now dead, no further details can be verified.

The object’s subsequent history is less clear; recently uncovered information shows that it passed through the collection of the antique dealer Julius Böhler in Munich, and was donated by Mrs Chester D. Tripp to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

There is no doubt that the crucifix in Cleveland is the same crucifix which disappeared from Trequanda. It bears an inscription in the Italian vernacular “Pietro Piovano had me made in Trequanda”, and the dimensions and enamel effigies of the Holy Father, Virgin Mary and saints correspond perfectly to the 1917 records.

Although the museum itself acknowledges the cross as the same object which disappeared from theTrequanda church, the case for its return to Italy has not been straightforward. Cleveland holds good title to the crucifix under German law and in addition the statute of limitations rules out legal action. A restitution process is to be hoped for on an amicable basis.

The first requests for the return of the cross, advanced in 1992 by the bishop of Montepulciano, monsignor Giglioli, and the Soprintendente of Siena, Sandro Bruni, were rejected by the Cleveland Museum, which asked the Italians to renounce their claim as the object had been acquired in good faith and legally. In the following three years the Church and the Soprintendenza have continued to press their claim, with the ambassador to the US, Mr Bianchieri, acting as intermediary. The Italians insist on the return of the crucifix given its historical, cultural and religious connection to its place of origin, quite apart from its artistic value.

In Cleveland, museum officials are continuing to contemplate this vexing issue. According to a spokesman, a straightforward return is regarded as a thorny problem. There are, however, several other routes open to the Italians. The crucifix could be purchased from Cleveland, or they could negotiate a temporary loan.

Lieutenant Colonel Benedetti Aloisi, the Carabinieri officer in charge of this case, is strongly opposed to the idea of a long-term loan, as this would implicitly deny the ownership claims of the Trequanda Church. The parish and local authorities, however, would be willing to accept this option, if only so that local awareness of the case might encourage Trequanda’s citizens to raise funds to compensate the museum.

The town is hoping for another “miracle” of the kind which occurred in 1980 when the carabinieri tracked down and returned a stolen triptych attributed to Giovanni di Paolo in record time.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Per favore, Cleveland Museum: give us our cross back'