Italian Police Seize Rubens Masterpiece From an Exhibition

Four people are under investigation for illegally exporting the painting and money laundering

The Resurrected Christ Appears to His Mother by Peter Paul Rubens
The Resurrected Christ Appears to His Mother by Peter Paul Rubens Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

Late last month, Italian police seized a masterpiece by Peter Paul Rubens worth over $4 million from an exhibition in Genoa. 

Per Reuters, the removal was part of an investigation into criminal activity in connection with the piece, including smuggling and money laundering.

A few days later, the painting was returned to the exhibition, called “Rubens in Genoa,” in Genoa’s Doge Palace. But the police’s broad-reaching investigation into the piece continues. The artwork’s two owners, as well as an accountant and his son, are all under scrutiny, according to the Art Newspaper’s James Imam.

Rubens created the six-foot-tall oil painting, titled The Resurrected Christ Appears to His Mother, between 1612 and 1616. It depicts Madonna kneeling next to Christ. In 2015, however, conservators used X-ray technology to discover a second Madonna that had been painted over, likely part of an earlier version of the piece.

The restorers decided to remove a layer of paint, making the original Madonna visible, per the Art Newspaper. Their actions—modifying a masterpiece by one of the Flemish masters—are considered controversial. “The figure in question will be the subject of further investigations,” says the Carabinieri cultural heritage unit in a statement, per Artnet’s Taylor Dafoe.

The artwork’s current owners purchased it from the Cambiasos, an Italian noble family, in 2012 for about €300,000. But in 2014, the owners and their two accomplices allegedly conspired to send the piece abroad to Prague, passing it off as a work by a lesser Flemish painter worth no more than €25,000. Authorities believe that a connection at the export office helped them obtain an export license. The four then created companies abroad to fake several sales of the painting, “raising the value and obscuring the chain of ownership,” writes the London Times’ Philip Willan.

Despite the allegations against its owners, the painting will remain on display in Genoa until the exhibition closes in February. Alessandro Caprio, leader the Carabinieri investigation, tells the Art Newspaper that the piece will be secured behind a glass panel until then.

The investigation has caused quite a stir around the painting, leading Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic and Italy’s undersecretary to the culture minister, to question the piece’s authenticity. But Anna Orlando, the co-curator of the Genoa exhibition, says that the work’s authenticity is “not up for discussion,” reports La Repubblica’s Michela Bompani, per Artnet. Nils Büttner, her co-curator working on the exhibit, is “the highest authority on Rubens in the world,” she says.