March 13 (UPI) -- A group of thieves stole a painting by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger from an Italian church Wednesday, but not before police replaced the $3.4 million artwork with a fake.
The thieves stole a copy of the 17th century painting, titled Crucifixion, from Santa Maria Maddalena church in the small Northern Italian town of Castelnuovo Magra.
Hours after the theft, local police revealed they caught wind of the planned theft ahead of time and swapped out the original painting with a fake. Officials kept up the ruse in the hours after the theft, telling newspapers the theft was a "hard blow for the community."
They made the swap about a month before the theft.
"Rumors were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras," Mayor Daniele Montebello told Italian news agency ANSA. "I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn't the original but kept up the secret."
Crucifixion is a tourism draw for the small community in Italy's La Spezia province.