Skip to content

Feds Seize Stolen Old Master Painting offered at Sotheby’s

June 24, 2014
Lot 5. FLORENTINE PAINTER, ACTIVE IN THE AMBIT OF CIMABUE, CIRCA 1285 - 1290 MADONNA AND CHILD oil on panel 27 5/8  by 18 in.; 70.2 by 45.7 cm. Estimate: $600,000-800,000.

oil on panel: 27 5/8 by 18 in.; 70.2 by 45.7 cm.
Estimate: $600,000-800,000. This lot was withdrawn.

The Courthouse News Service  reports that a late 13th century Italian Madonna and Child offered during Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in New York on January 30, 2014, and subsequently withdrawn from the sale, was determined to have been stolen and was seized by US federal officials. According to the article:

Prosecutors claim the “Madonna and Child” was stolen from a safe deposit box in Geneva, Switzerland in 1986.

On Monday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a forfeiture complaint listing the artwork as the defendant.

Sotheby’s, which is not accused of wrongdoing, said in an email statement that it “cooperated fully with the government on this matter.”

“We first became aware of an issue with the painting when it was flagged during our due diligence process; we voluntarily pulled the painting from auction before the U.S. government was involved and held it pending further instructions from relevant authorities,” Sotheby’s said. “We have no comment on the substance of the allegations in the government’s complaint as Sotheby’s has had no involvement in the underlying dispute.”

The complaint details a mysterious Feb. 6, 1991 report that Geneva police provided to Interpol investigating the theft allegations, which appear to involve a squabble over an inheritance from the late Camille Marie Rose Aprosio.
That report is thin on details about the lives of Aprosio and her family, and it is difficult to locate public information about them.
Born Aligardi, Aprosio owned half of the painting when she died in 1980, and left her interest to her heirs Paulette and Roger Aligardi, according to the complaint.

These heirs designated as a representative to that interest a man named Henri Aligardi, whose relationship to them is not revealed in the complaint. The other half of the interest belonged to a man named John Cunningham, prosecutors say.
“In or about 1986, Henri Aligardi and Cunningham placed the painting in a new safe deposit box at a separate branch of UBS in Geneva,” the complaint states.

“The heirs of Camille Marie Rose Aprosio reported that Cunningham had also ceded a percentage of his interest in the painting to two other individuals, Michael Hennessy and John Ryan. Hennessy and Ryan subsequently reported that Cunningham had removed the painting from UBS to an account held at Lloyd’s Bank in Geneva and solely in Cunningham’s name.”

The complaint does not state what happened to the piece for the more than two decades after it was reported missing.
In January this year, the painting was imported to the United States and consigned to Sotheby’s, which set a minimum bid price of “over $5,000,” prosecutors say.

That does not appear to be its actual value, but the statutory minimum to trigger a forfeiture action.
While this “Madonna and Child” was pulled before the Jan. 24 auction, the other works sold netted a total of more than $51 million, ranging from the tens of thousands to the millions of dollars, according to Sotheby’s website.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to assign a more specific value for the painting it wishes to seize.

The lot notes for the painting, which are no longer on Sotheby’s Web site, had no information about the work’s provenance. However, I have saved them and reproduce them below:


A. Smart, “A Duccio discovery: an early ‘Madonna’ prototype”, in Apollo, vol. 120, 272 (1984), pp. 226 – 237 (as Duccio di Buoninsegna).


Figure 1.

Figure 1.

An early and rare panel of monumental scale, this remarkably expressive and touching depiction of the Madonna and Child can be dated between circa 1285 and 1290. While the painting undoubtedly shares an affinity with models by Duccio di Buoninsegna, such as his Rucellai Madonna, now in the Uffizi, Florence (inv. no. P555), Andrea De Marchi and Laurence Kanter believe the author of this panel to have been Florentine rather than Sienese, and more heavily influenced by Duccio’s contemporary Cimabue. Two other compositions are known to follow the same design, one in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 1) and another in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin (fig. 2).

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

All three paintings were certainly executed by different hands yet, while certain details vary (the representation of Saint Frances on the right hand side of the Oberlin picture, for example, and the red robe of the Christ Child in the Louvre picture), the compositions themselves are almost identical.

The gestures here are exquisitely expressive in their tenderness, the Madonna catches the Child’s right foot with the tips of two fingers, while caressing the skin above his ankle with her index finger, in a motion that appears natural and spontaneous. The same gesture is treated with a slight variation in each painting. In the Louvre picture, Christ’s left foot is outstretched and the fingers of the Madonna’s longer and less naturalistic hand do not quite convincingly hold the right foot; in the Oberlin picture meanwhile, Christ’s feet are crossed and the Madonna’s hand credibly grasps the Child’s heel. Also notable are variations in Christ’s gestures. In the Oberlin depiction, the infant appears persistent in commanding his mother’s attention; using her hand as a step, he pulls his weight upward with his right arm, which is wrapped around his mother’s neck. His left hand is positioned on the far side of the Madonna’s chin, gently yet insistently pulling her face toward him. In the present panel however, the gestures are more molified and the Child sits contentedly in his elevated position in the crook of his mother’s elbow. While he affectionately grasps his mother’s chin, his face is already nestled closely into her cheek, and he has no need to pull her toward him.

Laurence Kanter speculates that the three panels may have been based on a Byzantine prototype, perhaps from Assisi or Arezzo, one much venerated or celebrated for its miraculous properties and therefore worthy of reproduction.1 The geometricized scheme of mordant gilding representing folds in the drapery here is certainly a concept inspired by Byzantine methods, though all three paintings diverge slightly from that tradition, unable to resist the temptation to render the folds more naturalistically.2 This aspect is most noticeable in the delineation of the drapery folds on the head. Conventionally the folds here would form concentric semicircles, mirroring the edge of the Madonna’s veil, however, still visible on the forehead here are the remains of curving, vertical lines, in turn emanating finer, horizontal rays. This motif was used by Duccio and Cimabue at a moment when both experimented in the introduction of naturalism to the otherwise stark abstraction of Byzantine patterns.3 While the present painting adheres most faithfully to Byzantine prototypes, of the three panels here examined, it is by far the most advanced in terms of the volumetric treatment of the Christ Child’s shift.4 Rather than lie in comparatively flat lines, the gilded folds are arranged in a sophisticated system of contours, delineating the billowing fabric in the Christ Child’s sleeve and robe and displaying the artist’s superior understanding of volume and form. While Kanter dates the Oberlin and Louvre Madonnas to the 1270s, the advanced knowledge of volumetric form in the drapery suggest a slightly later dating for this painting, between the mid-1280s and 1290.5

We are grateful to both Andrea De Marchi and Laurence Kanter for suggesting the author of this work to be a Florentine painter active in the ambient of Cimabue upon firsthand inspection, and to Kanter for suggesting a dating between the mid-1280s and 1290.

1. L. Kanter, private oral communication, 19 November 2013.

2. L. Bellosi, Duccio alle origini della pittura senese, exhibition catalogue, Milan 2003, p. 154.

3. Ibid.

4. L. Kanter, private oral communication, 19 November 2013.

5. Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: