Thieves steal fake Bruegel masterpiece in police sting

A decoy of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Younger was picked up by thieves

A small Italian church got the last laugh on a group of art thieves who stole a Flemish master's painting of the crucifixion only to learn cops had swapped out the original for a fake after being tipped off that a heist was in the works.

"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".

On Wednesday, the thieves broke into the display case containing the painting with a hammer and made off with the painting by auto - seemingly unaware that their loot was anything but the real deal.

On Wednesday morning, a pair of thieves broke into the Santa Maria Maddalena church in the sleepy town of Castelnuovo Magra, which is located about 100 km from Florence in northern Italy.

Police are now investigating the surveillance footage.

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Officials kept up the ruse in the hours after the theft, telling newspapers the theft was a "hard blow for the community". Mayor Daniele Montebello says the law enforcement agency reacted by deciding "to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras".

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.

He also thanked members of the church for holding their peace - "because some faithful had noticed that the one on display was not the original, but did not reveal the secret".

Originally bought from Bruegel by an Italian ambassador to the Netherlands, the painting was owned for a while by a family of Italian nobles before being donated to the church in the 19th century. And it was the copy the art thieves took off the wall.

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