CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – A 350-year-old statue of a saint and former pope, taken from an Italian church nearly two decades ago, has been found in the home of a North Carolina couple who had no idea it was stolen, authorities said.
The intricately carved bust of St. Innocent will be returned to the church in Naples, Italy, U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement agents said.
The statue was one of 17 similar busts and two oil paintings taken from the church in November 1990. Authorities told The Charlotte Observer the trail went cold until two years ago, when officials in Rome let federal agents know an Italian citizen sold a similar statue to an antiques dealer from Greensboro.
The statue sold in Charlotte was bought by the same dealer at an antiques fair in France, said Neal Johnson, the Charlotte dealer who bought the statue from the same Greensboro dealer and sold it to the couple.
"I've never heard of this happening anywhere other than some big-time story in New York," Johnson said. "You don't always know the lineage of pieces you buy."
The wood and painted gold statue was made by 17th-century Franciscan artist Diego da Careri and was part of a set of busts displayed at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli alle Croci.
It has lost much of its value since it was stolen. The head is gone, part of the cross the saint carried is missing and much of the paint has deteriorated.
Agents continue to investigate the original heist. The Americans involved have not been charged, ICE spokesman Brandon Montgomery said.
"A lot of times, what happens is the person who is knowingly stealing something puts it in the black market," Montgomery said. "It can go through three or four hands before it gets to the first legitimate buyer, so to speak."
St. Innocent was born in Albano, Italy, and became pope in December 401. He was the pope nine years later when the Visigoths captured and sacked Rome.