Italian Culture Minister Accused of Owning Stolen Painting

Italian authorities are investigating junior culture minister and art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, accused of owning and displaying a 17th-century painting that was allegedly cut from its frame in a heist over a decade ago. The 71-year-old government official, who also serves as president of the country’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto, insists that his work is the real deal — and that the stolen work was a fake.

Renaissance artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti’s “The Capture of Saint Peter” is estimated to be worth around €200,000–300,000 (~$217,541–326,303). It used to hang at the historic Buriasco Castle residence near Turin and was reported missing in 2013. The property owner alleges that thieves placed a photograph of the work in place of the original, which measures over six-and-a-half feet wide. The Italian television news program Report, which broke the story, claimed that a friend of Sgarbi had visited the castle a few weeks before the theft and asked about buying the painting.

Eight years later, in 2021, Sgarbi included a nearly identical artwork in a historical exhibition he curated in the small city of Lucca. This work included a candle painted in the corner, a detail the minister has pointed to as proof of his innocence, claiming that his version of the work came from his mother’s home and that the painting stolen from the castle was a fake. On Friday, January 12, the cultural official posted on X that he had handed over “The Capture of Saint Peter” to authorities.

Meanwhile, Sgarbi is also being investigated for allegedly illegally exporting a €5 million ($5,439,250) painting that was recovered in Montecarlo. (This time, he insisted, his version is the copy.) The culture minister, a center-right political figure, is now facing calls to resign, which he has refused.

“My painting is the original, the other is a badly made copy,” Sgarbi told Corriere della Sera.

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