In Search of Stolen Saints

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Jeremy Horner / Corbis

A view of Igreja da Ordem Terceira de Sao Francisco in Salvador, Brazil.

The São Bento Church is remarkably tranquil for building wedged between Rio's bustling downtown and one of the city's major highways. So tranquil, in fact, that nobody even noticed, recently, when thieves walked into the Baptism Chapel one afternoon, sawed a priceless wooden sculpture off the wall, and waltzed off with it.

The piece, a six-inch statue of an icon named Faith, once formed part of the ornate gold-leaf side altars that date from 1690, shortly after work on the church began. "It was priceless," says Dom Paulo Azeredo Coutinho, one of the 45 monks who live and work in the famous building and monastery. "It was a one-off."

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for its theft. Although no complete figures are available, police and cultural officials report a large increase in recent years in the pilfering of Brazil's religious artifacts and objets d'art. The booty includes wood and terracotta sculptures, gold and silver candlesticks, thuribles and communion silver — even rare books, maps and engravings.

"This year in Rio we have seen five cases of theft — four sculptures and one candelabra," said Marcos Monteiro, director general of Inepac, the Rio institute that oversees the state's cultural heritage. "It is getting worse as the market heats up and demands more pieces. There is a market for religious art and it has been growing since the 1940s. Now it is the hot trend."

Monteiro tracks the beginning of the trend to the late 1960s, soon after the Vatican II meeting in Colombia declared the church should focus more on Christ and less on saints and other icons. That ruling led many priests to remove beautiful sculptures of the Virgin Mary and other saints from display. Some were sold, often to raise money for a parish, and a whole new market was created.

Brazil is a particularly rich source of religious art, because during the 17th and 18th centuries it was the only art form encouraged by the country's devoutly Catholic rulers. In the states of Bahia and Pernambuco in the northeast, and Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro in the south, Portuguese settlers built baroque churches dripping with gold, silver and art. But today, much of that art is gone. "The last time I checked, we had registered 188 works of art stolen — that's since 2000," says Vanessa de Souza, a Brazilian police chief and delegate to Interpol. "We think there are a lot more that haven't been reported to us. Sometimes we see reports of thefts in the newspaper and we haven't been told officially."

Souza says some of the robberies are the work of gangs who traffic the pieces to Europe and beyond. Most, though, are done by small-time crooks who fence their swag to local antique dealers, who then sell them on to private collectors.

Officials believe, however, that many antique dealers have no idea they are trafficking in stolen goods, because there are hundreds of icons legitimately on the market, having been sold legally by churches or private chapels or imported from dealers abroad. In a bid to track the illicit trade, Brazil's legislature recently passed a law obliging all antique dealers to register with authorities by December. It'll take more than that, however, to trace the stolen goods, says Monteiro.

"What we need is a national system to catalogue the country's religious art," he said. "That way, if something is stolen in Rio then it can't be resold in Pernambuco or São Paulo, and if something is stolen in Pernambuco or São Paulo, then it can't be resold here."

The São Bento church has taken its own precautions, hiring seven security guards to patrol the church and grounds, as well as fitting 15 CCTV cameras in and around the premises. These steps have made the monks who wander about in flowing dark brown robes feel safer, and Coutinho is confident it also offers protection to the priceless pieces that hang from every wall and ceiling of the spectacular 300-year-old building.

And Coutinho has a new idea to bolster the deterrent effect of his security measures. Looking up at a little camera discreetly hanging from a whitewashed wall, a mischievous smiles flickers across the face of the serene former architect. "You can't see those cameras," he says. "We should put up a sign saying, 'Smile, You're Being Filmed.' Or even better, 'Smile, God is Watching.' "