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Italian police thwart illegal auction abroad of painting by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi

This undated image, provided by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Squad shows 17th Century painter Gentileschi's Caritas Romana.
This undated image, provided by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Squad shows 17th Century painter Gentileschi's Caritas Romana.   -   Copyright  AP Photo
By Euronews  with AP

Italy’s art squad police say they have prevented the potential illegal sale by a Vienna auction house of a 17th-century painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, a celebrated Baroque artist.

According to authorities, art merchants allegedly described the work as being painted by a follower of Gentileschi, and not the artist herself, to fraudulently obtain export permission.

Gentileschi was unusual for achieving success as a female painter in the male-dominated art world of her time. She also is a symbol of courageous women for testifying, even while being tortured, against a man who raped her in her bedroom while she was a teen.

“The painting was on the verge of being auctioned,'' Carabinieri Lt Col Alfio Gullotta told Italian state TV in Bari, where the returned masterpiece, ”Caritas Romana" (Roman Charity) was shown to reporters.

Gentileschi's early work, with strikingly dark sections of her canvases contrasting with her illuminated subjects, reflects influences by Baroque giant Caravaggio.

Several of her works offer a bloody vision of Biblical or mythological stories, many of them focused on the struggle of strong women. In some of her paintings, the subjects are women wielding knives, swords or spikes against men.

A criminal probe is in its early stages, said the Carabinieri, which began its investigation of the oil painting's movements in 2020.

The artwork is estimated to be worth at least €2 million. It was commissioned by a nobleman in Puglia in the mid-17th century.

Italian authorities said they suspect that the go-betweens, availing themselves of an intermediary based in Tuscany, aimed to have the painting sold abroad, and deliberately neglected to supply historic documentation about the work's real origins.

The specialised art squad includes police officers who regularly pore over auction catalogues and online offerings, on the lookout for descriptions or images of any artworks or antiquities that have either been stolen or risk being illegally exported from Italy.

Cultural property crime surged during the pandemic. An Interpol survey released late last year found that hundreds of thousands of cultural property objects were seized globally in 2020, including coins, paintings, sculptures, archaeological items and library materials.

In total, 854,742 objects were seized globally in 2020, according to Interpol, and more than half of these items were seized in Europe.