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A Small Italian Town Tricked Thieves Into Stealing a Fake $3.4 Million Painting From Its Church

The Crucifixion or The Calvary, 1617, by Pieter Brueghel the YoungerThe Crucifixion or The Calvary, 1617, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638). Flemish painter. The Crucifixion or The Calvary, 1617. Museum of Fine Arts. Budapest. Hungary. PHAS UIG via Getty Images

Here’s an art heist that won’t inspire any Ocean’s Eleven sequels, but might make for a feel-good family comedy.

Italian police announced Wednesday that thieves who thought they stole a €3 million ($3.4 million) painting by 17th-century Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Younger—and from a church, no less—actually took off with a forgery during a police sting assisted by local townspeople, the Guardian reports.

“Rumors were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras,” said Daniele Montebello, mayor of Castelnuovo Magra.

The painting, which depicts the crucifixion, was donated to the small Ligurian town’s Santa Maria Maddalana church more than a century ago and has seen its fair share of adventure. The masterpiece was hidden from German soldiers in World War II was also once stolen in 1981. (Luckily the police recovered it a few months later.)

So when the carabinieri heard the painting was once again at risk, they quickly stored it away and replaced it with a replica.

“We had sworn to the carabinieri to keep mum, so at first I had to act like I was desperate and fake grief over the loss,” Montebello said, according to the New York Times.

Not only did the mayor have to feign sadness after thieves broke the church’s protective glass and fled with the forgery in a white Peugeot getaway car—but some suspicious residents had to play along.

According to the BBC, Montebello told local press that “some faithful had noticed that the one on display was not the original, but did not reveal the secret.”

Be it karma, divine intervention, or plain old good police work, the NYT reports that although Montebello didn’t know if the thieves have been identified or arrested, it is “only a matter of time.”