Â£10m Giotto painting illegally removed from Italy, high court finds
Painting Â£10m Giotto painting illegally removed from Italy, high court finds
Arts Council England justified in rejecting application to export it from UK to Switzerland
The high court has ruled that a Â£10m painting by the 14th-century Florentine master Giotto was removed from Italy unlawfully, rendering it âeffectively unsellableâ according to one expert.
The court found that Arts Council England (ACE) was justified in rejecting an applicat ion to export it from Britain to Switzerland.
The artwork was brought to Britain by Kathleen Simonis, who purchased it in Florence for about Â£3,500 in 1990, when it was thought to be an unremarkable 19th-century panel painting. Restoration work led to its subsequent upgrading to one of the most important painters of his school.Lost, stolen, blown up and fed to pigs: the greatest missing masterpieces Read more
ACE is responsible for issuing export licences for cultural property leaving Britain. In rejecting Simonisâs application, it decreed that, under EU law, it had no power to grant an export licence. Concluding that the âcompetent authorityâ under EU law for a licence was the Italian authorities, it offered instead to issue an export licence for the return of the painting to Italy.
Simonis was accused in the high court of having âspiritedâ the painting from Italy without a valid licence. Earlier export licences that allowed it to tr avel freely had since expired or been annulled by Italian ministerial decrees.
Her lawyer, Aidan OâNeill QC, had argued in court: âShe has a right to transfer her property from one member state to another. That is in the very DNA of EU law.â
But the judge, Mrs Justice Carr, agreed with ACE, stating: âThe Arts Council is not the âcompetent authorityâ under EU law to issue an export licence to Switzerland in respect of the painting.â
She noted that the painting was considered by the Italian authorities âto be of exceptional cultural and historical importanceâ.
What will happen to the painting is unclear. Alexander Herman, the assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law, said: âItâs in this funny limbo right now. What the high court has said is that, under Italian law, this was unlawfully exported. But it hasnât ordered â" because it wasnât asked to do so â" the painting back to Italy.
âSo the painting is now sitt ing in the UK, as I understand it, in a storage facility ... But it canât really go anywhere. Who would buy it in their right mind, even if youâre a UK-based institution or individual? You â¦ could never take it outside the EU, based on the ruling. And you have a court judgment telling you that it was illegally exported from Italy. So it effectively becomes â¦ ringfenced.â
In a blog on the Institute of Art and Law website, Herman wrote: âFor now the painting is effectively unsellable. The only potential buyer would have to be UK-based, someone who doesnât mind the stink of it having been unlawfully exported from Italy.â
He suggested the owner could return it to Italy by trying to strike a deal with the Italians.
Paying tribute to ACE for showing that âthe UK cannot be used as a gateway for getting works of art out of the EUâ, he said: âThis is a very interesting outcome, for the art market and EU cooperation â¦ ACE showed diligence and were very thorough. They didnât simply issue a rubber stamp for an export licence, even though this work is not a British national treasure.â
The painting has been the subject of extensive litigation in the Italian courts. It came to London after a judgment in Italy in Simonisâs favour, but the highest Italian administrative court, the council of state, later reversed that decision.
Although the Italian authorities have called for the paintingâs return, Herman noted that some still questioned whether this was truly a Giotto. He said: âBut weâll put that aside for now â¦ Whatâs interesting is that this works nicely within the current EU framework â¦ Now the inevitable question is what happens after Brexit, when the UK is suddenly outside of that system of cooperation and consultation?âTopics
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