The theft of a rare handwritten letter by the Renaissance master Michelangelo could only have been an inside job, the former head of the Vatican museums has said.
A former Vatican employee has reportedly agreed to return the two letters, which were stolen from an archive in 1997, for between 100,000 and 200,000 Euro.
The Vatican authorities discovered that it was missing from the offices of the Fabbrica of St Peter's Basilica 18 years ago but did not publicise the theft.
The former director of the Vatican Museums, Franco Buranelli, said: "These areas [of the archive] are not easy to access. It must have been an inside man working in the archives who knew how to gain possession of the document and be able to get it out without creating havoc."
He said the letter was of "immense" value although it would be impossible for thieves to sell. "Every letter by Michelangelo is of immense value. The loss of any nugget by the great Renaissance masters is serious. There is no serious possibility of a sale," he told Rome-based newspaper Il Messaggero. The value of the letter "is difficult to estimate," he added, "because it depends on the content, intended recipient, period and the presence or not of signatures, sketches, designs or sonnets."
He said that the letter would probably not have been a family letter but likely referring to art commissioned by the Pope.
A nun working in the Archivo della Fabbrica, the body set up by Pope Julius II in 1506 to maintain the basilica of St Peter’s, informed the then head-Cardinal Virgilio Noe of the disappearance in 1997.
Then a few months ago an ex-Vatican employee contacted its head, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, saying he knew what had become of the letter and wanted a reward.
"Cardinal Comastri recently received a proposal for the return of the letter in exchange for payment," Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said. "Naturally he refused, as these are documents that have been stolen."