Slovakian Lawsuit Threatens the Getty Museum’s $33 Million Bernini Bust
How could an auction house misattribute the bust twice?
In June, the J. Paul Getty Museum announced the acquisition of an exquisite early bust depicting Pope Paul V by the Italian master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The museum reportedly acquired the artwork in a private sale facilitated by Sotheby’s, London for $33 million. The acquisition was hailed as a major coup and was greeted by extensive enthusiasm and fanfare from the Los Angeles cultural community.
Yet only six weeks after the announcement, a criminal complaint in connection with the sale of the bust has been filed in Slovakia, which may threaten the museum’s newest masterpiece.
Slovakia’s culture minister Marek Maďarič has accused the SOGA auction house in Bratislava of misconduct.
In September 2014, a collector identified as Clément Guenebeaud bought the marble bust—which was not attributed to Bernini at the time—at a SOGA auction for only €24,000 ($26,500), before securing the masterpiece’s re-attribution and subsequently selling it to the Getty for $33 million.
A spokesperson for the Slovakian Culture Ministry told the Los Angeles Times in an email that the minister was searching for an explanation as to how a tiny Eastern European country has lost a historic artwork and a potentially lucrative tourist attraction.
The spokesman explained that a criminal complaint has been filed against “an unknown offender, suspecting that the persons who participated in the statue’s sales process could have known the value of the artwork.”
In fact, the statue has been misattributed and undervalued by SOGA not once, but twice. The bust came on the market for the first time in 2013 on consignment from the heirs of the estate of the deceased Slovakian painter Ernest Zmeták. Estimated at €47,000 ($52,000) the work failed to sell.
In September 2014, it was offered once again at a reduced estimate of €24,000 ($26,500). This time Guenebeaud bought the piece at the estimated sale price.
Having disappeared from records for most of the 20th century, the bust’s patchy provenance made it difficult to sell. There were even suggestions that it may have been looted by the Nazis. Eventually Sotheby’s was able to make the sale to the Getty.
And although the impeding lawsuit has sparked speculation over the bust’s future, the Getty hasn’t been implicated for any wrongdoing.
In an email to artnet News Ron Hartwig, the Getty Museum’s vice-president of communications assured that the bust “will remain on view to the public at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”
He explained “The Bust of Pope Paul V (1621) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was legally exported from Slovakia, legally sold in the United Kingdom and legally imported into the United States. Whatever the nature of the Slovakian government’s inquiry, it has no impact whatsoever on the Getty’s ownership of the bust.”
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