UK High Court Rules £10m Giotto Painting Illegally Removed from Italy

Imagine you bought a £3,500 painting which was thought to be a 19th-century copy, but its value skyrocketed to £10m after it was reattributed to a Renaissance master. However, you failed to get an export licence for the painting, making it almost unsellable. This is exactly what happened to Kathleen Simonis.

Giotto’s Madonna and Child

Kathleen Simonis purchased a painting for £3,500 in 1990 at a Florence auction. The painting, titled Madonna and Child, was thought to be a 19th-century copy of Italian painter Giotto (1267-1337).

Two years later, the work was proclaimed to be an authentic Giotto after an art expert published an article about it. Madonna and Child was later reattributed to the 14th-century master, proven by technical analysis during restorations. The painting is now estimated to be worth £10 million (US$13.2 million).

A sculpture by Giotto

The work was at first identified as a 19th-century copy, so the Italian authorities granted an export licence in 1999. After the reattribution, Italy came to realize that this was a work of “exceptional cultural and historical importance”.

In 2000, a decree issued by Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Property annulled all previous licences on the basis that restoration carried out during the 1990s meant the work “became another work of art”. Simonis appealed the decision.

The Ministry issued another decree in 2004, which was successfully appealed by Simonis in 2007. Simonis exported the painting to the UK in February 2007, days after the ruling annulled the 2004 decree. Yet, Italy’s highest administrative court later reversed the 2007 order, in support of the 2004 decree.

Another painting by Giotto

Another painting by Giotto

In 2015, Simonis applied to Arts Council England (ACE) for an export licence to Switzerland. ACE rejected the application as it decreed that, under EU laws, it had no power to grant an export licence.

The latest ruling in London’s High Court upheld ACE’s decision not to grant a licence, supporting the decision that the work was illegally dispatched from Italy to the UK in 2007. It concluded that the competent authority for a licence was the Italian authorities instead.

London’s High Court

Simonis has to make a choice between keeping the painting in the UK or send to it home to Italy. If she goes with the former option, it seems that the only potential buyer would be UK-based, someone who doesn’t mind the stink of it having been unlawfully exported from Italy.