Italy to Frick Collection: Give Our Painting Back

Italy to Frick Collection: Give Our Painting Back

The Frick Collection doesn’t make acquisitions lightly, so when the museum announced in December 2017 that it had bought a painting, its first purchase of one since 1991, the art world took special note of the new addition to the museum’s collection, a full-length portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese by the French painter François Gérard.

But now the portrait seems to be the subject of a custody battle. Italian authorities have revoked the export license for the piece and are asking that it be returned to Italy.

The Frick purchased the painting for an undisclosed amount from an art gallery with an office in Milan, Robilant + Voena, which had obtained the export license.

But an Italian official, Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli, the head of the circulation department of the directorate-general of archaeology, fine art and landscape at the culture ministry in Rome, told the Art Newspaper that the application for the license was incomplete. The official said that it did not specify that the subject of the portrait was the prince, a notable historic figure who was Napoleon’s brother-in-law.

Without this information, she said “the importance of the painting for national patrimony as a rare and significant document of the Napoleonic era in Italy” was not recognized until later.

The nearly 7-foot-tall painting, completed around 1810, depicts the prince richly dressed and standing. At the time of its acquisition, the Frick’s chief curator, Xavier Salomon, remarked on its “unlined and untouched” condition and the rarity of its subject as the only known painting of the prince.

Robilant + Voena said in a statement that its application for the export license “complied fully with all the procedures set out by Italian law in providing the information that such law requires.”

The gallery has hired Art Recovery International, which specializes in art repatriation issues, to work on its behalf to resolve the dispute.

Leila A. Amineddoleh, a lawyer who specializes in art and cultural heritage law, said that if the case is litigated, a court will have to determine the appropriate venue and applicable body of law. But, she said, “whatever court looks at this, they would consider the Italian laws and their cultural heritage laws.”

The Frick Collection, which has yet to display the work, declined a request for comment Thursday.

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