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The works under scrutiny include pictures later sold for multi-million sums by leading dealers and auctioneers.

In the latest twist of a story that began unfolding earlier this year, Parisian lawyer Philippe Scarzella told ATG that Ruffini had once owned the works, but that the “art collector” is “neither an expert nor an art dealer”.

Scarzella said that his client “entrusted professionals, experts, art dealers and museums to study and determine their attributions”.

It emerged last week that Sotheby’s have reimbursed a buyer who acquired one of the works, a Frans Hals portrait sold to a US collector in a $10m private deal brokered in 2011.

It was previously owned by Ruffini but was supplied to Sotheby’s by London dealer Mark Weiss.

There is no suggestion that Sotheby’s or Weiss knowingly handled a fake and Ruffini has not been charged.

‘National treasure’

It has also emerged that the National French Museums (NFM) had previously determined the picture was a ‘national treasure’ and the Louvre had launched an ultimately unsuccessful fundraising bid to buy the work.

ATG attempted to contact Weiss for comment but did not receive a response. He was quoted in the Financial Times, however, saying he was “yet to be convinced” that the Hals was not genuine.

Another picture owned by Ruffini was Venus with a Veil, attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder. The work was later sold in 2013 by Colnaghi (run by dealer Conrad Bernheimer at the time) to the Prince of Lichtenstein for €7m.

Back in March, a judge in Paris ordered the seizure of the oil on panel in connection with an investigation that began in 2015. It was removed while on exhibition at the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence.

Experts at the NFM have been examining the Cranach and are preparing a lengthy report. ATG understands that technical “materials analysis” lie at the centre of the case.

Conrad Bernheimer was unavailable for comment and a spokesman for Princely Collections of Lichtenstein said they could not comment given that the proceedings are still ongoing.

Sold by ‘middlemen’

In an email sent to ATG, Scarzella asserted that “Mr Ruffini didn’t sell the Venus of Cranach… The middlemen he appointed to undertake the task of studying the picture pretended to be the actual owner and they sold it to the Bernheimer-Colnaghi Gallery.”

ATG understands that French experts are investigating whether the Cranach and a number of other works may have been faked using replica materials.

Sotheby’s confirmed that, following the seizure of the Cranach, they “informed the buyer of the Hals of potential concerns regarding the authenticity of the work”.

They added: “We then worked with the buyer to commission a high-quality, technical analysis which demonstrated the work was a forgery.”

Sotheby’s reimbursed their client “several months ago”.

The latest developments in the possible fakes scandal were revealed in the most recent edition of the French publication Le Journal des Arts, published at the end of September. It mentioned further works previously owned by Ruffini which have come under the spotlight having previously changed hands for significant sums of money.

Effect on the market

Following a week of bad publicity for the Old Master market, Paris and New York dealer Bob Haboldt told ATG he believed any damage “will be contained as dealers, collectors and curators will be careful, and have been, since the Cranach was removed from the Aix exhibition.

“The damage to the art market will certainly be further contained if the French authorities share their evidence publicly in the near future.

“In the long term this will be treated like the van Meegeren case, when afterwards everyone was convinced his imitations and inventions of Vermeer’s ‘early’ style were easily recognisable.

“Technical examination is a good back-up but the visual confrontation and identification of Old Masters, however difficult and subjective to taste at times, is still of the utmost importance in old-school connoisseurship.”

Additional reporting by Laura Chesters