ZURICH — Switzerland’s highest court has rejected Italy’s request for the return of an oil painting attributed by some to Leonardo Da Vinci, ruling no Swiss laws were broken when the work was brought over the border.
Titled Portrait of Isabella d’Este and dated to the 16th century, the painting became the subject of an international tug-of-war after an Italian woman, Emidia Cecchini, sought to sell it in 2013.
Police were alerted to its existence when an Italian lawyer surfaced with a mandate to sell it for no less than €95 million ($106 million). Art experts have yet to agree on whether it really is by the Renaissance master.
An Italian investigation into possible tax crimes and insurance fraud uncovered evidence that led police in 2015 to the painting in a vault in the Swiss town of Lugano, a lakeside banking center in the Italian-speaking south where many Italians have crossed the border to deposit assets.
Cecchini, who Swiss court documents said was convicted in Italy with two others for their role in exporting the picture, has always maintained the painting had been in Switzerland for a century, taken there by her relatives who at one time lived in the country, Swiss and Italian media have reported.
The Swiss verdict clears the way for the work’s return to Cecchini, from Pesaro. Cecchini’s attorney did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment on Wednesday. Italy’s Justice Ministry declined to comment.
Italy demanded its seizure on grounds it had been trafficked out of the country illegally to Switzerland.
In a decision published on May 29, the Swiss Federal Tribunal declined Italy’s request for the painting’s return, ruling its export to Switzerland was not liable to prosecution.
“Subject to any other international agreements, no state is required to apply foreign public law within its borders,” the Federal Tribunal said in a statement.
Under Swiss law regulating international cultural property transfers, people may face prosecution for illegally transporting objects of unique value if they are listed in a Swiss federal registry or, in this case, in a corresponding Italian inventory.
For this painting, however, that was not the case, the Swiss court wrote.
The portrait, a 24-inch by 18-inch oil-on-canvas of a noblewoman, resembles a charcoal study by Da Vinci that hangs in Paris’s Louvre museum.
There is discussion among art experts about whether it is really a Da Vinci. Carlo Pedretti, a Da Vinci expert and professor at the University of California Los Angeles before he died last year, told media in 2015 its origins merited more study but could not confirm whether Da Vinci was involved in painting it.
As the value of historic paintings soar, they’ve become both sought-after assets for investors as well as pawns in international disputes, many involving Switzerland. Salvator Mundi, a painting also believed to be by Da Vinci has been at the heart of a dispute between a Geneva art dealer and Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who said he was ripped off when he bought the painting from the Swiss.
Though Rybolovlev sold it at auction in November 2017 for $450.3 million, nearly triple what he paid for it, a scheduled showing of the canvas depicting Jesus Christ at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September was canceled without explanation, prompting speculation that the work has gone missing. Ben Lewis, the author of The Last Leonardo, a book about the history of the painting, thinks it may be in Switzerland, at the Geneva Free Ports, the world’s largest tax-free storage facility for priceless art.
In the case of the Isabella d’Este, Italian prosecutors asked Swiss authorities to sequester the painting in Lugano, which they did. Then a court in the Adriatic seaside town of Pesaro in 2017 condemned the owner of the work to a jail sentence of 14 months for the unauthorized exportation of the painting, according to Wednesday’s statement. It’s not clear if Cecchini ever served the sentence.
A court in Ticino in March 2018 then ordered the painting be returned to Italy, which Cecchini appealed. The challenge was dismissed by the Swiss Federal Administrative Court in September, before the victory at the supreme court this month. — Reuters/Bloomberg