A gang of thieves who thought they had successfully stolen a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Younger from a church in Italy woke up to a nasty surprise on Thursday – the revelation that it was a fake that had been deliberately planted by police.

In a lightning strike, the robbers filched The Crucifixion by the Flemish painter from a parish church in Castelnuovo Magra in the northwestern region of Liguria on Wednesday.

They were unaware that police had received intelligence that the oil painting, estimated to be worth around €3 million (£2.6 million) , might be stolen and had replaced the original with an exact replica.

Police also set up surveillance cameras around the church and are now studying the footage in an attempt to identify the culprits.

The theft of the painting was widely reported by the Italian media on Wednesday but it was only later that police revealed that the stolen masterpiece was not the real thing.

The mayor of the town was in on the subterfuge, initially telling media outlets that the loss of the Bruegel was “a hard blow for our community”.

The thieves pulled up in front of the Santa Maria Maddalena church in a white Peugeot at lunchtime, used a hammer to break open a display case and made off with the painting at high speed.

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They were spotted by a woman who lives opposite the church, who raised the alarm and called the mayor, Daniele Montebello.

It gradually emerged that the stolen object was a fake and that the original had been placed in safe keeping.

“The original painting was replaced by a copy more than a month ago,” said the mayor.

“We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri (Italy’s paramilitary police force) brought in the fake and installed security cameras.”

The original Bruegel, which measures 43cm by 67cm, was stolen from the church nearly 40 years ago but later recovered after being found in the home of a convicted criminal who had just been released from jail.

Originally bought from Bruegel by an Italian ambassador to the Netherlands, the painting was owned for a while by a family of Italian nobles before being donated to the church in the 19th century.

The painting is a copy of a work by the artist’s father, Bruegel the Elder.

Born in 1564 in Brussels, Bruegel the Younger frequently found himself in financial difficulties and made a living from producing copies of his father’s paintings.

He was nevertheless admired by contemporaries, including Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, and his paintings are held by the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

“It is a work of rare beauty which expresses a moment of profound faith,” said the parish priest, Father Alessandro Chiantaretto, who was having a nap when the gang struck.

The town’s custodianship of the Bruegel is not its only link to the world of culture – the poet Dante stayed there while on a diplomatic mission to bring piece to warring factions in the region in 1306.

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