Italy Police Thwart Illegal Auction Abroad of Gentileschi Painting

Italian police have thwarted the potential illegal sale by a Vienna auction house of a 17th-century painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, a female Baroque artist.

The Carabinieri (Italian law enforcement) said art dealers had allegedly described the work as being painted by a follower of Gentileschi in order to fraudulently obtain export permission from Italian authorities.

Gentileschi is considered one of the most celebrated painters of her generation. In the male-dominated art world of her time, it was unusual for her to achieve success as a female painter.

“The painting was on the verge of being auctioned,” Lt. Col. Alfio Gullotta told Italian state TV in Bari, where the returned masterpiece, “Caritas Romana” (Roman Charity), was shown to reporters.

Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio, Gentileschi’s early work contains strikingly dark sections of her canvases contrasting with her illuminated subjects.

The artwork had been valued at nearly 2 million euros ($2.05 million) by the auction house. One of Italy’s preeminent Gentileschi experts, Riccardo Lattuada, has argued that the painting should not have left the country in the first place, and has accused the state of “incompetence.”

It was commissioned by a count in Puglia in the mid-17th century. The work “Caritas Romana” formed part of the nobleman’s collection of 500 paintings once displayed at the Castello di Marchione. The artwork depicts the ancient Roman tale of Pero, who breastfed her imprisoned father Cimone in secret—a topic famously covered by both Rubens and Caravaggio in their respective works entitled “Cimon and Pero” (circa 1630) and “The Seven Works of Mercy” (circa 1607).

Investigators think that the painting’s current owners, Michele Forte and Domenico Iannuzziello, got approval from the exports division of the culture ministry for the piece to be shipped abroad in 2019 by hiding the painting’s identity and true worth through the use of a Tuscany-based middleman company. Giovanni Di Bella, the leader of the Carabinieri TPC’s Bari team, said that the unit started looking for the piece the following year and blocked its sale after learning it had been advertised at the Dorotheum auction house.

According to Di Bella, the work is being kept in “the best circumstances” on property under the superintendent of Bari. The results of the probe will determine its eventual fate, he added. If courts decide that the owners broke the law, the state will unquestionably seize the artwork and may donate it to a museum in Puglia; however, if the owners are found not guilty, the painting will be given back to them with a restriction on exporting it in the future.

A spokesperson for the Dorotheum said: “The painting in question was legally exported from Italy in 2019 by the owners of the painting with an export license from the Italian Monuments Office as ‘attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi and/or Onofrio Palumbo, formerly attributed to Massimo Stanzione.’ This export license was subsequently revoked in 2020. The owners, who inherited the painting, have since been in an open legal dispute with the export authority over the revocation of this export permit from Italy. The painting was neither offered in an auction nor in a private treaty.”