Art

Mussolini's Aide, His Son and a Spat Over Dutch Master's Art

  • 16th century portraits by Anthonis Mor at heart of London suit
  • Lawyers raise concerns over painting bought in Mussolini era

Two portraits once part of the prized collection of Benito Mussolini’s finance minister are the focus of the latest lawsuit over valuable artworks to reach London courts.

Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata, a renowned car-racing team manager and son of Giuseppe, the man credited with solving Italy’s World War I debt crisis, is suing a London-based dealer for breach of a partnership agreement over the paintings by 16th Century Dutch artist Anthonis Mor. The dealer denies any wrongdoing and counters that concerns over how the family came into possession of the work caused problems for potential buyers.

Queen Mary Tudor of England by Anthonis Mor

Source: Museo del Prado

Volpi said Old and Modern Masters Ltd. "repeatedly lied" about the sale of the "Ermine Portrait" -- Count Alessandro Farnese dressed in an ermine-lined embroidered jacket with black cap -- to Hans Adam II Prince of Liechtenstein in 2015 for 5 million euros ($5.3 million), according to court documents filed in London’s High Court last year and made public this week.

Volpi was eventually paid 50 percent of the sale proceeds after he pursued the dealers in 2016. However, he is still suing for losses, breach of contract and the return of the second painting. He claims the "Armor Portrait" -- Count Alessandro Farnese dressed in half armor, breeches and white stockings -- that was to be sold to a Florida-based dealer for 1.6 million euros, was deliberately undersold in a move to prevent the partnership agreement being nullified.

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Volpi entered into a partnership with Old and Modern Masters in 2014, giving the dealer a 50 percent share in the paintings and permission to sell them in exchange for 1.5 million euros, lawyers for the count said in court documents. Lawyers for Volpi and Old and Modern Masters declined to comment and declined to provide images of the portraits.

The opaque art world, where the most prized works exchange hands for eye watering amounts of money, throws up multiple court battles across the globe between collectors, dealers and auction houses over fraud, authenticity, and money laundering.

"Provenance can prove crucial for a variety of reasons," said Tim Maxwell, a lawyer specializing in art litigation at Boodle Hatfield who isn’t involved in the suit. 

"It can confirm a chain of ownership, it can remove doubts over questionable historic owners and, if part of a famous collection, it can add considerable value. It is currently perceived as being even more important due to recent art-market scandals,” he said.

Value Questions

Sotheby’s was cleared in a 2015 suit over over the valuation of what may be a 17th-century copy of a Caravaggio painting. The authenticity of “The Cardsharps” was at the center of a lawsuit against Sotheby’s, which sold the painting for 42,000 pounds ($51,000) in 2006. The purchaser later declared the work an original and valued it at 10 million pounds.

Marco Voena, a director of Old and Modern Masters, said the lack of any documentation relating to the purchase of the portraits sometime between 1939-1941 “coupled with the fact that the claimant’s father was a former minister in the Mussolini’s fascist government at the time he is said to have acquired the portraits has affected" their marketability.

Anthonis Mor, born in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1517, was one of the leading portrait artists of his time and spent much of his career traveling around the royal courts of Europe painting dignitaries including Queen Mary I of England and Spain’s King Philip II. Mor’s work featured in a 2014 exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery and his other paintings have been shown across Europe and the U.S.

"A museum will not even look at a painting unless there is about 100 years clear documented provenance," said Toby Campbell, an expert with the Rafael Valls art gallery in London that specializes in Dutch, Flemish and Spanish old master paintings.

"That said, it is often difficult for previous owners of paintings to verify when it entered their collection and so often one has to go by their word that something has been owned by the family for generations," according to Campbell, who’s not involved in the case.

Chain of Title

The attribution of the paintings couldn’t be properly verified by independent experts, Voena’s lawyers said. Although the "Ermine Portrait" is thought to be by Mor, the "Armor Portrait" could be a collaborative work, making it less valuable, they said in defense documents.

"Whilst there is reason to believe that the portraits were acquired legitimately, the absence of a clear chain of title rules them out as a potential acquisition for many institutional and private buyers," they said.

Voena didn’t tell Volpi about the sale on the off chance it fell through as potential buyers had expressed concerns over the attribution. Voena denies the "Armor Portrait" is undervalued and that the legal proceedings scuppered the sale. The dealer is countersuing, asking a judge to order the painting be put up for sale at an auction with the proceeds to be split evenly between the parties.

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