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Italian junior culture minister rejects accusations that he laundered stolen art

Vittorio Sgarbi shouts as he argues with other lawmakers during a debate on Justice in Italy's parliament in 2020. He was later carried out of the Chamber of Deputies.
Vittorio Sgarbi shouts as he argues with other lawmakers during a debate on Justice in Italy's parliament in 2020. He was later carried out of the Chamber of Deputies. Copyright Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse via AP
Copyright Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse via AP
By Anca Ulea
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Art critic and junior culture minister Vittorio Sgarbi is under investigation for laundering stolen goods, over a painting he owns which was reported stolen in 2013.

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Vittorio Sgarbi, a renowned art critic and one of Italy’s junior culture ministers, has been placed under investigation for laundering stolen goods – after a 17th century painting that was reported stolen was found in his possession.

The painting, Caravaggio-influenced Renaissance work “The Capture of Saint Peter” by Rutilio Manetti, was reported stolen in 2013 by the owner of a castle in Italy’s northern Piedmont region, where it had been on display.

It resurfaced in a 2021 exhibition organised by Sgarbi – the painting was identical to the one reported stolen, except there was a candle added in the top-left corner of the canvas. 

This brought attention to the politician and piqued the interest of Italian authorities and media outlets. Italian media report that prosecutors are now investigating whether the new addition to the painting was made by Sgarbi himself to conceal the painting’s provenance.

Sgarbi has fiercely denied the accusations, saying he found the work in an old mansion his mother bought decades ago, long before the castle painting was stolen. He claims his painting is the original, and that the one stolen from the castle was a copy.

He told El Pais: “It’s not the same painting! Moreover, none of those who accuse me [the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and the program 'Report'] have seen the paintings: neither one nor the other. They can’t write articles accusing me without having seen the works. I have commissioned an expert to check my work and it will be proved that mine is an original and that all the elements, including the candle, are part of the painting.”

“I’m very relaxed. It’s all make-believe, all of it,” he added.

The allegations against Sgarbi were first brought forth in the TV programme ‘Report’ by Italian broadcaster Rai. The owner of the castle in Buriasco told reporters on the programme that the canvas was cut out of its frame and replaced with a photograph, not long after one of Sgarbi’s collaborators had offered to buy the work.

The report also claimed that another of Sgarbi's friends was brought a damaged canvas showing "The Capture of Saint Peter" to a restorer, which was said to have the same shape as the hole cut out of the castle frame.

Sgarbi, a junior minister in Georgia Meloni’s Forza Italia party, is no stranger to controversy. Also a provocative TV presenter, he went viral last year after getting into a fist fight with writer Giampiero Mughini on live television.

The year before, he was dragged out of parliament for shouting insults at other MPs and refusing to leave of his own accord.

But the latest scandals have seen a rise in calls for Sgarbi to resign, which the politician says he categorically refuses to do.

On top of the Manetti painting, Sgarbi is also accused of illegally exporting another work by French artist Valentin de Boulogne, which is worth €5 million. Police in Monaco seized the painting, which Sgarbi says is a copy and does not belong to him.

He is also under investigation by the Italian Competition Authority for allegedly charging for consulting services while holding public office, accusations which stem from reports by Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Additional sources • El Pais

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