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Operation Budapest: Documentary on the 1983 Fine Arts Museum Heist

Fanni Kaszás 2020.02.18.

In November 1983, prestigious Renaissance paintings, including two Raphael artworks, were stolen by a group of Italian and Hungarian thieves from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The case kept the whole country excited for weeks, newspapers calling it the “theft of the century.” Now, Operation Budapest, an Italian-Hungarian co-produced documentary debunks the mystery of the theft, which – according to the thieves – was “child’s play.”

More than 35 years after the 1983 art theft, some of the thieves who took renaissance paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, spoke to documentary filmmakers for the Italian-Hungarian co-production, Operation Budapest (Operazione Budapest). The film was directed by Gilberto Martinelli and Anna Nagy, who followed the crime with the aim to debunk the mysteries of the “theft of the century,” and with the intention to highlight this important historical event in Hungary during the eighties.

On the night of November 5, 1983, unidentified perpetrators took seven extraordinary Italian Renaissance masterpieces – including Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna, which at the time was worth 20 million dollars. The total amount of the stolen art pieces were estimated at 1 billion 436  HUF a year later, in 1984. The Hungarian press described the art theft as the biggest of the century and Interpol immediately joined the investigation.

The art thieves – five Italians and two Hungarians – knew exactly what they wanted to take from the museum. Besides Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna they also stole Portrait of a Young Man, also by Raphael, the Holy Family by Palma il Vecchio, the Holy Family in the Flight to Egypt, the Madonna with Six Saints by Tiepolo, and Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman by Tintoretto.

The thieves left some trails that clearly pointed to Italian perpetrators, so the authorities were soon able to reduce the number of suspects to 50. However, they got caught, like in a scene from a movie: because of love. A worried father, whose 17-year-old daughter was missing for days, approached the police. The girl, Katalin Jónás, spoke Italian well, and wanted to marry in Italy, and sought the company of Italian men for this purpose. In early December, the girl was caught at the border on her way home from Bucharest.

She admitted that she had traveled to Romania to follow her Italian love, who had promised her that she could flee to Italy with him with a fake passport and they would get married there. They were already in Bucharest when she realized that her fiancee was one of the thieves from the art theft that entranced the whole country, and who had committed the crime with his friends by the request of a Greek oil producer, Ephthimios Moscadescades and his brother.

Jónás had translated for the Hungarian participants – Gusztáv Kovács and József Raffai – about the theft,  who were also soon caught after her testimony. According to contemporary articles, the two Hungarians were promised ten thousand dollars in exchange for participating in the theft.

After authorities caught the Italian art thieves as well, the paintings also appeared in the garden of an abandoned monastery in Ageion, Greece. Unfortunately, the paintings were seriously damaged due to the way they were transported and stored, but they were returned to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The trial of the Hungarians began in April the next year. Kovács was sentenced to 12 years, Raffai to seven years in prison, while the 17-year-old Katalin Jónás got a suspended six month sentence. Compared to these, the Italians got away with it, as members of the gang received 4 years 6 months, and 4 years 9 months respectively – and eventually had to serve only part of the sentence imposed on them. The Greek entrepreneur, who ordered the art theft, was not sentenced due to the lack of evidence.

Although the works were returned to the museum, Klára Garas, the director of the institution for nearly 20 years, asked for her own retirement in 1984. However, the museum also benefited from the case: as newspapers were full of articles about the Museum of Fine Arts, the general public started to rediscover the institute once again.

As a side-project of the documentary film, a board game in three languages ​​(English, Italian, and Hungarian) was also made about the art theft, in which players are European investigators following the stolen pictures and art thieves. Director Anna Nagy said that the idea came from the thieves, who repeatedly called the “theft of the century,”  “child’s play.”

featured photo: MTI/Szigetváry Zsolt

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