The Chase for the Missing Masterpiece


It was possible, Sofia Ravello would tell the Carabinieri later that day, to spend the majority of one’s waking hours in another man’s home, to prepare his meals and wash his sheets and sweep his floors, and to know absolutely nothing about him.

The officer from the Carabinieri, whose name was Caruso, did not take issue with her statement, for the woman who had shared his bed for the last twenty-five years was at times a perfect stranger to him. He also knew a bit more about the victim than he had thus far revealed to the witness. The man was a murder waiting to happen.

Still, Caruso insisted on a detailed statement, which Sofia was all too happy to provide. Her day began as it always did, at the dreadful hour of 5:00 a.m., with the bleating of her old-fashioned digital alarm clock.

Having worked late the previous evening—her employer had entertained—she had granted herself fifteen minutes of additional sleep before rising from her bed. She had brewed a pot of espresso with the Bialetti stovetop, then showered and dressed in her black uniform, all the while asking herself how it was that she, an attractive twenty-four-year-old graduate of the esteemed University of Bologna, worked as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthy foreigner rather than in a sleek office tower in Milan.

The answer was that the Italian economy, reputedly the world’s eighth largest, was gripped by chronically high unemployment, leaving the young and educated little choice but to go abroad in search of work. Sofia, however, was determined to remain in her native Campania, even if it required taking a job for which she was vastly overeducated.

The wealthy foreigner paid her well—indeed, she earned more than many of her friends from university—and the work itself was hardly backbreaking. Typically, she spent a not insignificant portion of her day staring at the blue-green waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea or at the paintings in her employer’s magnificent art collection.

Her tiny apartment was in a crumbling building on the Via della Cartiere, in the upper reaches of the town of Amalfi. From there, it was a lemon-scented walk of twenty minutes to the grandly named Palazzo Van Damme. Like most seaside estates on the Costiera Amalfitana, it was hidden behind a high wall. Sofia entered the passcode into the keypad, and the gate slid open. There was a second keypad at the entrance of the villa itself, with a separate passcode.

Usually, the alarm system emitted a shrill chirp when Sofia opened the door, but on that morning it was silent. She did not think it odd at the time. Signore Van Damme sometimes neglected to activate the alarm before turning in. Sofia proceeded directly to the kitchen and engaged in the first task of her day, which was the preparation of Signore Van Damme’s breakfast—a pot of coffee, a pitcher of steamed milk, a bowl of sugar, toasted bread with butter and strawberry preserves.

She placed it on a tray and at seven o’clock exactly placed the tray outside his bedroom door.

No, she explained to the Carabinieri, she did not enter the room. Nor did she knock. She had made that mistake only once. Signore Van Damme was a precise man who demanded precision from his employees. Needless knocks on doors were discouraged, especially the door to his bedroom. It was just one of the many rules and edicts that he had transmitted to Sofia at the conclusion of the hour-long interrogation, conducted in his magnificent office, that preceded her hiring.

He had described himself as a successful businessman, which he had pronounced beezneezman. The palazzo, he said, served as both his primary residence and the nerve center of a global enterprise. He therefore required a smooth-functioning household, free of unnecessary noise and interruptions, as well as loyalty and discretion on the part of those who worked for him.

Gossiping about his affairs, or about the contents of his home, was grounds for immediate dismissal. Sofia soon determined that her employer was the owner of a Bahamas-based shipping company called LVD Marine Transport—LVD being the acronym of his full name, which was Lukas van Damme. She also deduced that he was a citizen of South Africa who had fled his homeland after the fall of apartheid.

There was a daughter in London, an ex-wife in Toronto, and a Brazilian woman named Serafina who dropped in on him from time to time. Otherwise, he seemed unencumbered by human attachments. His paintings were all that mattered to him, the paintings that hung in every room and corridor in the villa.

Thus the cameras and the motion detectors, and the nerve-jangling weekly test of the alarm, and the strict rules about gossip and unwanted interruptions.

The sanctity of his office was of paramount concern. Sofia was permitted to enter the room only when Signore Van Damme was present. And she was never, never, to open the door if it was closed. She had intruded on his privacy only once, through no fault of her own. It had happened six months earlier, when a man from South Africa was staying at the villa.

Signore Van Damme had requested a snack of tea and biscuits to be delivered to the office, and when Sofia arrived, the door was ajar. That was when she learned of the existence of the hidden chamber, the one behind the movable bookshelves. The one where Signore Van Damme and his friend from South Africa were at that moment excitedly discussing something in their peculiar native language.

Sofia told no one about what she had seen that day, least of all Signore Van Damme. She did, however, commence a private investigation of her employer, an investigation conducted mainly from within the walls of his seaside citadel.

Her evidence, based largely on clandestine observation of her subject, led Sofia to the following conclusions—that Lukas van Damme was not the successful businessman he claimed to be, that his shipping company was less than legitimate, that his money was dirty, that he had links to Italian organized crime, and that he was hiding something in his past.

Sofia harbored no such suspicions about the woman who had come to the villa the previous evening—the attractive raven-haired woman, mid-thirties, whom Signore Van Damme had bumped into one afternoon at the terrace bar of the Santa Catarina Hotel. He had given her a rare guided tour of his art collection.

Afterward they had dined by candlelight on the terrace overlooking the sea. They were finishing the last of their wine when Sofia and the rest of the staff departed the villa at half past ten. It was Sofia’s assumption that the woman was now upstairs in Signore Van Damme’s bed. They had left the remnants of their dinner—a few soiled dishes, two garnet-stained wineglasses—outside on the terrace.

Neither glass bore any trace of lipstick, which Sofia found unusual. There was nothing else out of the ordinary save for the open door on the villa’s lowest level. The likely culprit, Sofia suspected, was Signore Van Damme himself. She washed and dried the dishes carefully—a single water mark on a utensil was grounds for a reprimand—and at eight o’clock exactly headed upstairs to collect the breakfast tray from outside Signore Van Damme’s door.

Which was when she noticed that it had not been touched. Not his typical routine, she would tell the Carabinieri, but not unprecedented, either. But when Sofia found the tray undisturbed at nine o’clock, she grew concerned. And when ten o’clock came and went with no sign that Signore Van Damme was awake, her concern turned to alarm.

By then two other members of the staff—Marco Mazzetti, the villa’s longtime chef, and groundskeeper Gaspare Bianchi—had arrived. Both were in agreement that the attractive young woman who had dined at the villa the previous evening was the most likely explanation for Signore Van Damme’s failure to rise at his normal hour.

Therefore, as men, it was their solemn advice to wait until noon before taking action. And so Sofia Ravello, twenty-four years old, a graduate of the University of Bologna, took up her bucket and mop and gave the floors of the villa their daily scrubbing—which in turn provided her with the opportunity to take inventory of the paintings and other objets d’art in Signore Van Damme’s remarkable collection.

There was nothing out of place, nothing missing, no sign that anything untoward had occurred. Nothing but the untouched breakfast tray. It was still there at noon. Sofia’s first knock was tepid and received no answer.

Her second, several firm blows delivered with the side of her fist, met with the same result. Finally, she placed a hand on the latch and slowly opened the door. A call to the police proved unnecessary. Her screaming, Marco Mazzetti would later say, could be heard from Salerno to Positano.

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