Milan Torah crowns
The man in charge of Milan’s Central Synagogue, Meir Hame’eri, with one of the recovered Torah crowns, Feb. 7, 2011. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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The man who brought about the capture of rare Judaica that had been stolen from Milan's Central Synagogue last week was noted Judaica collector and expert William Gross.

Gross said the items, estimated at $1-1.5 million, were the rarest ever to be stolen from a synagogue apart from during the Holocaust.

Last Friday, Gross and a Jerusalem Judaica assessor foiled the thieves' attempt to sell the stolen items when he recognized them as belonging to the Milanese synagogue.

The thieves, four ultra-Orthodox youngsters from Jerusalem, are suspected of stealing the objects from the synagogue in Milan, Italy, where they went last Tuesday pretending to be worshippers.

Once they made sure they were alone in the building, they allegedly stuffed their bags with valuable Judaica, including antique Torah crowns, four pairs of ornamental pomegranates for Torah books and the golden key of the synagogue's holy ark.

"The thieves didn't invent the wheel by stealing Judaica, nor were they the first to take advantage of their ultra-Orthodox appearance, especially abroad," Gross said yesterday.

He explained that rabbis abroad tend to trust someone resembling an ultra-Orthodox Jew or even wearing a yarmulka. "Ultra-Orthodox people or people posing as such can easily enter a synagogue, it's a system that's worked before," he said.

The thieves returned to Israel with the goods via France and lost no time in contacting Judaica dealers in Jerusalem.

The theft was discovered only on Friday morning, when Rabbi David Shunach, the community's deputy chief rabbi, opened the holy ark to prepare the Torah scroll for Shabbat services. Shunach contacted his Jerusalem friend Angelo Piattelli, a Judaica expert and assessor who had documented and assessed the Milan synagogue's Judaica collection in 2009.

At Shunach's request, Piattelli spread the word about the theft, assuming the thieves would be looking for buyers. He contacted dozens of dealers and collectors he knew in Israel, including Gross, who did not know the stolen items would show up on his doorstep for an assessment three hours later.

Known Judaica dealers, who had already paid the thieves a $70,000 advance on the items, called Gross and asked to consult with him before closing the $215,000 transaction.

As soon as Gross saw the items, which the dealers brought to his house, he recognized them, photographed them and emailed the photographs to Piattelli and Shunach - who confirmed that they were the articles stolen from the synagogue.

Gross also asked private investigator Gil Shmueli to contact the police, who sent undercover detectives to catch the thieves on Saturday night, when they came to meet the dealers, presumably to close the transaction.

Judaica prices have been rising in recent years, Piattelli said, stressing the importance of "documenting holy artifacts and publishing their description. What dealer would buy an article everyone knows from the books? In this case I think the thieves were simply stupid. Stealing so many rare items and trying to sell them together is like stealing the crown jewels."

Gross said "synagogues must protect their holy articles much more carefully and refrain from using them every day, as is common in Italy. Regrettably, some communities have stopped using the valuable articles simply because they have been stolen."

Some of Gross' valuable Judaica collectibles were stolen from his Tel Aviv home some 15 years ago. Several other rare objects he had given on loan to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, were stolen six years ago when the museum was robbed. They were never recovered.