Italy Revokes Export License for Frick Collection’s First Painting Acquisition in Decades

Italian authorities have rescinded an export license for a nineteenth-century painting by the French artist François Gérard. The piece, the Frick Collection’s first purchased painting since 1991, is now embroiled in an international custody battle.

The museum purchased the painting from the Milan-based art gallery Robilant + Voena in December 2017. The gallery then applied for and obtained an export license for the work, a full-length portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese. 

Months later, Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli, an Italian official from Rome’s culture ministry, told the Art Newspaper that the license application was incomplete. The ministry claims the application did not specify that the painting’s subject was a notable historic figure, a brother-in-law of Napoleon and a prominent arts patron and prince. Due to this omission, she said the ministry belatedly realized “the importance of the painting for national patrimony as a rare and significant document of the Napoleonic era in Italy.”

Robilant + Voena issued a statement declaring that its export license application had “complied fully with all the procedures set out by Italian law in providing the information that such law requires.” The gallery has since hired a company specializing in art repatriation issues, Art Recovery International, to look into the case and possibly pursue legal action. 

It is unclear how a judge would rule if the case were to go into litigation. Leila A. Amineddoleh, a lawyer specializing in art and cultural heritage law, said, “whatever court looks at this, they would consider the Italian laws and their cultural heritage laws,” reports the New York Times.

Asked to comment on the decision, a Frick spokesperson said, “As we understand that proceedings are pending in Italy, the Frick does not believe it appropriate to comment at this time.”

At the time of the painting’s acquisition, the Frick’s chief curator, Xavier Salomon, noted that it was the only known painting of the prince and that it would “coalesce seamlessly” with the institution’s collection of masterworks by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David, and Titian, among others. The museum had hoped to include it in an exhibition set to open on October 31, “Luigi Valadier: Splendor in Eighteenth-Century Rome.”