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The c.1810 portrait of Camillo Borghese by François Gérard. The subject is shown seven years after his marriage to Pauline Bonaparte and not long after Napoleon put him in charge of a swathe of Italian states. Image courtesy of The Frick Collection, New York.

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London and Milan-based Robilant + Voena said the overturning of the export licence that was granted by the Bologna export office last year “risks making a mockery of the entire decision-making process” and “undermines trust” in the system.

The painting, a full-length oil of Camillo Borghese by François-Pascal-Simon Gérard (1770-1837), had passed by descent within the Borghese family since it was commissioned c.1810.

Robilant + Voena acquired the picture and applied for an export licence, which was granted in March 2017. The acquisition by the Frick was announced in December 2017 with the New York institution describing it as its “most significant painting purchase in nearly 30 years”. The price has not been disclosed.

Granted then revoked

Earlier this year, however, authorities in Italy began proceedings to retrospectively overturn the export licence before revoking it in June. An official at the Italian cultural ministry stated that the export licence application was incomplete.

The subject had been described only as Ritratto virile (male portrait), meaning the authorities only belated realised the picture’s importance as a piece of cultural heritage. The name of the sitter, however, was reportedly identified on the reverse of the picture.

Robilant + Voena stated it had “complied fully with all the procedures set out by Italian law in providing the information that such law requires”.

The dealership says the Gérard portrait was one of seven works for which it made export requests at the same session at Bologna export office.

“The Gérard was not one of the [two] works denied a licence… the committee had done its job,” the dealership stated. “We are therefore surprised that, after having made their considered decision to grant an export licence for the Gérard at the session referred to above, the Bologna export office would, nearly 18 months later, attempt to challenge and overturn its own decision in such an incomprehensible fashion.”

ATG requested comment from the Italian ministry of culture and the country’s embassy in London but had received no response at the time of going to press.

A spokesman for the Frick said: “As we understand that proceedings are pending in Italy, the Frick does not believe it appropriate to comment at this time.”

Resolution professional

Robilant + Voena have now appointed Art Recovery International to help deal with the matter. Christopher Marinello, the CEO of ARI, said: “The dealers did the right thing, they did everything you’re supposed to do and have been totally transparent.”

Marinello had previously helped resolve a similar case relating to a painting by Italian painter Carlo Crivelli (c.1430- 94) which had been exported from Portugal and acquired by a dealer. The dealer had sold it on to a collector but the Portuguese culture ministry later repealed the decision to grant the original export license.

After two years chasing an agreement, Marinello eventually succeeded in getting the Portugese government to end its demand for the return of the work by telling the authorities that unless they did so his clients would seek “significant compensation”.

High Court case

A separate case relating to a Giotto Madonna and Child from c.1297 which had been exported from Italy in 2007 was also recently heard in the High Court in London after its owner applied to take it from the UK to Switzerland. The picture had been subject to a lengthy history of litigation in Italy after the decision over its export was reversed by an Italian administrative court in 2008.

Marinello said: “I am hopeful that this recent string of export license revocation is nothing more than a misguided cover for administrative errors. In such an event, the license must be upheld or it will be the death of the trade in these countries. 

“When an export license is lawfully issued, and due diligence performed, the collectors, dealers, and auction houses are entitled to rely on these licenses as are any subsequent purchasers.

“With the Crivelli case, ultimately it was the fact that Portugal failed to respond to mediation efforts and file a legally supportable claim to the picture that put an end to the case.”

Art market lawyer Rudy Capildeo, a partner of Boodle Hatfield LLP, told ATG that some states are permitted by their local laws to retrospectively withdraw licences but normally only if they have identified “a material misrepresentation on the forms or certain information was knowingly omitted by the applicant”.