Feds Seized 13th Century ‘Madonna and Child’ From Sotheby’s

Detail from Madonna and Child (circa 1285–1290), Florentine painter within the ambit of Cimabue.
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's, New York.

Federal agents have seized a 13th-century Madonna and Child painting thought to have been stolen in Switzerland in 1986, reports Courthouse News. The pre-Renaissance panel painting was imported to the United States by Sotheby’s, who had planned to include the piece in its January 24 “Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture” sale this past winter.

In the auction house’s catalogue for the sale, the work was attributed to a “Florentine painter within the ambit of Cimabue,” an important 13th-century painter and mosaicist considered the last Italian master of the Byzantine style. Cimabue’s work is said to prefigure the increased realism of the Renaissance era, and to bridge the gap between medieval and Renaissance art.

According to prosecutors, the painting, from circa 1285–1290, was stolen from a Swiss safety deposit box. The details of ownership are slightly fuzzy, but the theft appears to have stemmed from an inheritance argument.

The painting had two owners, John Cunningham and Camille Marie Rose Aprosio. When Aprosio died in 1980, she left her share of the painting to Paulette and Roger Aligardi, her heirs, who enlisted Henri Aligardi, presumably a relative, to represent their interest in the work.

According to the complaint filed by the federal prosecutors, Henri Aligardi and Cunningham stored the work in a UBS safe deposit box in Geneva in 1986, but Aprosio’s heirs believed that “Cunningham had also ceded a percentage of his interest in the painting to two other individuals, Michael Hennessy and John Ryan. Hennessy and Ryan subsequently reported that Cunningham had removed the painting from UBS to an account held at Lloyd’s Bank in Geneva and solely in Cunningham’s name.”

All this was taken from a Swiss police report from 1991 that was turned over to Interpol, but there appears to be little to no information about the whereabouts of the painting in the more than twenty years since.

The government declined to give a value for the painting, but the pre-sale auction estimate for the piece was $600,000–800,000.

Sotheby’s has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and has released an email statement claiming to have “cooperated fully with the government on this matter.” The auction house says it pulled the painting from the sale before it attracted the attention of the government, “when it was flagged during our due diligence process.” Since that time, Sotheby’s has “held it pending further instructions from relevant authorities.”

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