Italian police widen fraud investigation after seizing Rubens painting from Genoa exhibition

A valuable painting attributed to the Flemish Old Master Peter Paul Rubens has been returned to a Genoa exhibition just days after being seized by Italy’s Carabinieri. Meanwhile, police are continuing to determine exactly how the work was smuggled out of the country a decade ago in an elaborate plot, widening their investigation to an official export office in Pisa, the ANSA news agency reports.

Titled The resurrected Christ appears to his mother (around 1612-16), the oil on canvas is insured for €4m and shows Christ alongside a kneeling Madonna in a blue cloak. It had been displayed at Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale alongside 18 autograph works by Rubens since October, before the local branch of the Carabinieri’s art hit squad removed the painting on Friday 30 December 2022. Major Alessandro Caprio, who is leading the Carabinieri investigation, told The Art Newspaper that the work would be displayed behind a glass panel once it had returned to the exhibition.

Four Italian citizens, including the work’s two owners and an accountant and his son, are accused of exporting the work illegally and money laundering. The owners bought the work from the noble Italian Cambiaso family for €300,000 in 2012, before attributing the painting to an unknown Flemish artist and claiming its value was just €25,000 so that it could be exported to Prague in 2014, investigators claim. They then staged sales through companies they had set up abroad to raise the work’s market value.

The Carabinieri also believe the owners obtained the export certificate issued by the superintendent export office in Pisa from friends working at the body, which was temporarily closed in 2019 following “irregularities” surrounding the issuing of certificates, the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on Monday. Caprio declined to comment on the reports.

In 2015, restorers used x-ray technology to discover an original representation of the Madonna that the artist subsequently covered. Controversially, restorers decided to remove surface paint to reveal the original Madonna. The work will be on display in Genoa until the exhibition closes in February.

However, Vittorio Sgarbi, the art critic who is currently serving as undersecretary to the culture ministry, has claimed the work may not be by Rubens and criticized the Carabinieri for sequestering the work. “I invite those who carried out the preliminary investigations [on the supposed plot] to avoid embarrassing mistakes by exercising more prudence and rigor in their assessments,” Sgarbi wrote in a note cited by the Italian press. In response, Anna Orlando, the co–curator of the Genoa exhibition, said in comments reported by La Repubblica that the work’s authenticity is “not up for discussion”.

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