Kathleen Simonis had applied to Arts Council England (ACE) in 2015 for an EU export licence to take Madonna and Child from England to Zurich. ACE rejected the application after questions arose, including how it left Italy a decade earlier.
In the High Court, a judge upheld ACE’s decision and deemed the export an issue for Italian authorities.
Simonis had bought Madonna and Child in 1990 at an auction in Florence for £3500 where it was described as a “panel painting from the 1800s”. However, it was later restored and reassessed as a 13th century work with an attribution to Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337).
Given an estimated value of £10m and now considered to be of exceptional cultural and historical importance, the picture has been the subject of a lengthy history of litigation in Italy regarding its export since the late 1990s.
Although it was moved to London in February 2007 after a court in Lazio allowed it to leave the country, by November 2008 the Consiglio di Stato, the highest Italian administrative court, had reversed the decision and then refused any application for a review.
Simonis argued that not only had it been lawfully transported to the UK in 2007 but that the time limit for Italian authorities to recover the work had expired in 2014.
However, Justice Carr sided with ACE’s conclusion that, under EU law, the “competent authority” to now issue an export licence was Italy.
The High Court judgment states: “Where to strike the balance between public interest in protecting a nation’s cultural heritage and the private interests of art owners falls pre-eminently within the scope of the Italian authorities’ moral or political judgment.”