One that got away (ctd.)
January 13 2017
From La Repubblica newspaper in Italy comes news that the Italian government tried to stop the sale of a 15th Century painting sold last year by Sotheby's in London. The picture was a gabella showing the Flagellation of Christ, and was painted in 1441 by an artist commonly called the Master of the Osservanza, but who has now been suggested to be Sano di Pietro (1405-1481). Gabellas were used as decorative covers for the official account books of the city of Sienna, and were decorated with the coats of arms of the officials who drew them up. Most Siennese gabellas (105 of them) are now housed in the state archives in Sienna, but a number are in private collections and museums. Here's one in the Metropolitan Museum. La Repubblica says there are 136 in total.
The Italian government claimed that this painting must at some point have been 'stolen', was therefore still the property of the state, and should be returned to Italy. They presented no proof it was stolen, or when it left the Sienna archive. They also conceded that it left Italy 'before rules on export licences existed'. The picture had been in the possession of the German artist Franz von Lenbach, who died in 1904. So Sotheby's ignored this rather crude attempt to seize a painting being sold legitimately, in good faith, and it made £1.38m against a reserve of £400,000-£600,000.
I don't think there is any international legal mechanism by which Italy could seize the painting, wherever it ends up, since the claim on it is so weak. But I daresay it might not stop them trying. If I were the new owner, I probably wouldn't want to lend it to an Italian museum any time soon, just in case. The wider point here is that it's time we came to an internationally agreed statute of limitations for these restitution cases.