Rare Stolen Duccio Painting Finally Coming to Auction
The painting was stolen in Europe nearly 30 years ago.
While it’s no secret that valuable artworks can spark heated ownership battles, this latest saga was surprising even to us.
A decades-long ownership dispute over a valuable 13th-century Italian painting—which some claim is by Italian master painter Duccio de Bouninsegna (“Duccio”)—that was stolen in Europe nearly 30 years ago—finally turned a corner yesterday when a judge signed off on a settlement agreement stipulating that the work will be offered at public sale. The document names nearly 30 individuals, who are heirs of the original owners and who claim to have an interest in the work.
The fact that the painting, which depicts a Madonna and child, was owned by a handful of individuals who shared ownership at the time it was stolen, added even more layers of complexity to a disappearance that sparked multiple international police investigations, by both local law enforcement, and Interpol, and litigation between the UK, Monaco, Switzerland, France and the US.
London-based Art Recovery International helped facilitate the settlement which ultimately came down to negotiations between the US government on one side and the painting, termed “the Defendant Property,” on the other side. (See Feds Seize 13th-Century Madonna and Child Painting From Sotheby’s.) The lengthy title of the case is “United States of America v. The Painting Known and Described as ‘Madonna and Child’ attributed to the Florentine Painter Active In The Ambit of Cimabue, Circa 1285–1290, held by Sotheby’s in New York.”
According to the settlement order, which a judge in US District Court for the Southern District of New York signed off on late yesterday (May 11): “The United States and the Claimants agree to the sale of the Defendant Property.” The work will be placed for “public sale,” which presumably means an auction.
“This was a particularly important case for us as it was the first match by the Art Claim database,” said Art Recovery Group CEO Christopher Marinello. “These cases always demonstrate that recording thefts, and other title disputes on a database like ours can eventually bring some measure of justice to the victims of art crime.”
The case dates back to 1977, when two art dealers in London acquired the work though it is not clear where or from whom. Afterward ownership was “split between several individuals, each holding a fractional share in the painting.” In 1986, one of the people who owned an interest in the painting stole it from a bank vault in Geneva,” according to a release from Art Recovery. The whereabouts of the painting remained unknown until January 2014 when the work suddenly turned up at Sotheby’s in its January 2014 Old Masters sale in New York, where it carried an estimate of $800,000. But that sale was never realized.
When the Art Claim database identified the work as the one stolen from Geneva, Sotheby’s voluntarily withdrew the work from the sale. Art Recovery was appointed to represent the interests of two of the painting’s original owners. Interpol’s involvement in the case had prompted the attention of the US District Attorney which ordered a civil forfeiture and seized the painting this past June.
Art Recovery retained Galluzzo & Amineddoleh LLP, a New York-based boutique art, intellectual property, and cultural heritage law firm co-founded by Leila A. Amineddoleh and David J. Galluzzo , to handle the litigation proceedings that resulted in negotiating a favorable settlement with the government and the claimants (see John McEnroe Prevails In Court Amid Continued Salander Fallout and Will Salander’s Fraud Victims Get Their Money Back?).
According to a statement from Art Recovery, “the resolution process was slowed considerably because many of the original owners and the thief were deceased at the time the work was identified. It is thought that the Sotheby’s consignor, since identified as the thief’s widow, was looking to take advantage of the passage of time in order to avoid the scrutiny of her late husband’s former partners” (see Chris Marinello Is The Sherlock Holmes of Art Crimes and Nazi Looted Vlaminck Sold At Christie’s Ending Decades of Controversy).
Court documents released in conjunction with US attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation further underscore how convoluted the claims became over time. According to various reports in Courthouse News and the New York Post, the painting vanished from a safe deposit box in Geneva in 1986, and Interpol took over the probe in 1991 from local police but the case had gone cold until the painting turned up at Sotheby’s New York.
The artwork was reportedly partially owned by Paulette and Roger Aligardi, both of whom were the heirs of a woman named Camille Marie Rose Aprosio. Aprosio and her partner, John Cunningham, held 50 percent interest in the work, which they deposited in a Geneva safe deposit box at Union de Banques Suisses (UBS) in 1977.
When Aprosio passed away in 1980, her heirs appointed Henri Aligardi to represent their interest in the painting in conjunction with Cunningham. Six years later, Aligardi and Cunningham transferred the painting to a new safe deposit box at a different UBS branch. Meanwhile Cunningham had also given a percentage of his interest to two other individuals, Michael Hennessy and John Ryan.
The latter two men later reported that Cunningham had removed the artwork from UBS and put it in another account in his own name. Of the dozens of names listed as claimants, who appear to have come forward with claims starting in July 2014 and continuing through September, they are grouped as “Aprosio heirs” and as “claimants.”
Another interesting wrinkle in the case is the fact that Art Recovery recognizes that the painting has been attributed to Duccio. Prior to the theft of the painting, a 1984 report in Apollo magazine, by Alastair Smart, attributed the work to the Italian master. In that article, Smart wrote: “Enzo Carli has expressed the opinion that [the work] is by the young Duccio, and that it is datable within the last quarter of the century. Such an ascription must rest chiefly upon an exact correspondence of the principal features of its style with Duccio’s style as it is revealed especially in the Rucellai Madonna and the Madonna of the Franciscans. In support of Carli’s attribution, attention may be drawn to the exceptionally fine quality of the execution throughout the panel, which is all the more telling because of its good state of preservation—apart from the head of the Christ Child.”
Among the most well known of Duccio’s Madonna and Child paintings is one acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $45 million in 2004, which was the last known sale of a work by Duccio. The Met’s former director at the time, Philippe de Montebello, hailed the Duccio Madonna as “the greatest single acquisitions of the last half century.”
Attesting to the rarity of a work by Duccio, according to the artnet Price Database, a work by Duccio has never come up for auction, though there are 13 results that appear in the artnet Price Database for works connected to Duccio, whether the artist is a “follower of” of the artist or the work is created “after” (a loose term meaning around the time of or in the manner of) the artist. The highest price for such a work at auction is around $14,000 for a 2005 sale.
Previous news reports, including an artnet News’ report last summer and Sotheby’s cataloguing, described the work as being by a 13th century Florentine artist “within the ambit of Cimabue.” Noting the Sotheby’s cataloguing, Marinello told artnet News: “the parties involved are relying on the article in Apollo. The market will decide.”
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.