Anti-forgery investigators must relinquish painting to Prince of Liechtenstein, court rules

The Parisian court of appeal has ruled that an iconic German painting, seized under suspicion of forgery in 2016, must now be returned to its owner Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein.

According to the prince’s curator, Johann Kräftner, ‘Venus with a Veil’ was painted in 1531 by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). Five years ago, it was controversially confiscated after an anonymous complaint alerted the high-profile anti-forgery investigation. The investigation closed in 2018, but the painting was never given back.

This week the court declared the restitution “would not obstruct the establishment of truth” and the removal should not “harm the rights of an owner of good faith”. The painting was once owned by infamous collector Giuliano Ruffini, who allegedly masterminded an international trafficking ring of forgeries.

At the time of the seizure Eric Morain, lawyer of the Prince of Liechtenstein, insisted “the painting was acquired in 2013 from a well-known British gallery and has been authenticated by recognized experts, specialists in the work of Cranach.” However, the investigation discovered that pigments in the painting were not consistent with Cranach’s workshop. In a 213-page scientific study, experts also confirmed the signature was not the artist’s and identified a cracking network on the panel that was consistent with “artificial ageing”.

Kräftner remains adamant that ‘Venus with a Veil’ is indeed by Cranach. In 2013 he bought the painting for €7 million (£6 million) from the art dealer Konrad Bernheimer, who had received it as a gift from Ruffini. Berheimer allegedly traced the provenance to a Belgian family in the mid-19th century. Now Ruffini has launched a lawsuit against both Kräftner and Berheimer accusing them of conning him.

Vincent Noce, a journalist for The Art Newspaper who investigated Ruffini for several years, said “there has been a great negligence among experts and conservators who didn’t question the lack of provenance of artworks and were happy to rely on a visual examination – sometimes just a photograph – without any laboratory tests.”

Numerous artworks sold by Ruffini have recently come under suspicion, including a Frans Hals (1582-1666) painting owned by the art collector David Kowitz that was sold at Sotheby’s in 2011. Kowitz claimed he had been unaware the painting was a fake when purchasing it from Ruffini. The auction house then successfully sued Kowitz for £3.8 million in 2019 and last year a London appeals court upheld the ruling. Ruffini continues to deny all allegations.

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