London dealer sued over paintings owned by Mussolini’s Finance Minister

The son of Benito Mussolini’s finance minister is suing a London art dealer over the sale of two 16th century Dutch portraits by Anthonis Mor from his father’s collection.

Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata is suing Old and Modern Masters Ltd for breach of a partnership agreement entered into in 2014, which allowed the dealer to sell the works in exchange for €1.5 million (£1.3 million) and a 50% share of the sale proceeds. The claim was filed in the High Court in London last year but the documents were not made publicly available until this week.

A car racing manager and the son of Giuseppe Volpi, who negotiated Italy’s World War I debt repayment, the count claims the dealer lied about the sale of ‘Count Alessandro Farnese dressed in an ermine-lined embroidered jacket with black cap’ (the ‘Ermine Portrait’). The portrait was bought by Hans Adam II Prince of Liechtenstein for €5 million (£4.3 million) in 2015 but it was not until Volpi sought payment from the dealer in 2016 that he received 50% of the proceeds.

Volpi also claims that ‘Count Alessandro Farnese dressed in half armor, breeches and white stockings’ (the ‘Armor Portrait’) was sold at an undervalue for €1.6 million (£1.4 million) to a dealer from Florida. He is suing for losses, breach of contract and the return of the ‘Armor Portrait’ .

Old and Modern Masters Ltd denies the claims and has countersued for a court order to sell the paintings at auction and divide the proceeds between the parties. The dealer argues that the marketability of the paintings was affected by a dearth of provenance information and concerns over their attribution.

According to Old and Modern Masters Ltd director, Marco Voena, there are no records for the purchase of the portraits between 1939-1941. This gap in provenance together with Giuseppe’s role in Mussolini’s fascist government is said to have undermined the sale value of the works.

Boodle Hatfield Partner, Tim Maxwell, who acted on behalf of the vendor in a case against Sotheby’s in 2015 explained the significance of provenance to Bloomberg. “It can confirm a chain of ownership, it can remove doubts over questionable historic owners and, if part of a famous collection, it can add considerable value”, he said.

Old and Modern Masters Ltd also contends that the value of the ‘Armor Portrait’ was affected by doubts over its attribution as it may be a collaborative work. The ‘Ermine Portrait’ is attributed to the artist but this could not be independently verified.

We will update you as the Volpi case unfolds.

Selling your art? Our art law expert Rebecca Foden shares her practical tips for sellers when consigning their items to an auction house here.

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