Italian Minister Accused of Owning Stolen 17th-Century Painting

Vittorio Sgarbi is under investigation for laundering an artwork that vanished from a castle over a decade ago

Vittorio Sgarbi
Italian junior culture minister and art critic Vittorio Sgarbi faces pressure to resign following accusations. Silvia Morara / Mondadori Portfolio / Mondadori via Getty Images

An Italian junior culture minister, art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, has been accused of possessing a 17th-century painting that vanished from a castle in the country’s Piedmont region. Authorities are now investigating him for laundering stolen art and altering its appearance to avoid detection.

The artwork in question is Rutilio Manetti’s The Capture of Saint Peter, a painting worth between €200,000 and €300,000 (roughly $218,000 and $327,000). It was on display until 2013, when the castle’s owner reported it had been cut from its frame and replaced with a photographic copy.

In recent weeks, Italian journalists released an investigation on “Report,” a TV series by the broadcaster RAI, and published an exposé in the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. Both reached the same conclusion: The missing painting was nearly identical to a work displayed in a 2021 exhibition organized by Sgarbi.

Castle owner Margherita Buzio told Italian reporters that an individual thought to be a friend of Sgarbi’s visited the property shortly before the theft and inquired about buying the work, per the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida.

Sgarbi insists the accusations are “defamation,” according to the Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata. His primary defense revolves around a small candle illuminating the corner of the painting, a detail not present in the stolen work. While reporters suspected that Sgarbi tampered with the artwork to hide its origin, he tells Corriere della Sera’s Giovanna Cavalli that the painting in his possession, allegedly found while restoring his mother’s abandoned home near Rome, is “the original,” while the castle’s painting is only a “poorly made copy,” per Google Translate.

“Manetti’s style was just that—he put candles everywhere,” he tells the publication.

In a translated post on X, formerly Twitter, Sgarbi asserted that the accusations are “ridiculous” and were prompted by “political aggression.”

Opposition parties have called for Sgarbi’s resignation amid a growing list of controversies. According to Euronews’ Anca Ulea, Sgarbi previously engaged in a fist fight on live television and was once forcefully removed from parliament for lobbing insults at other officials. Additionally, authorities in Monaco seized a second painting—a work by French artist Valentin de Boulogne worth €5 million (roughly $5.4 million)—that Sgarbi has been accused of illegally exporting. He is also being investigated by Italy’s antitrust authority for reportedly appearing at cultural events in return for “large sums of money,” according to Politico’s Alessandro Ford.

Despite the mounting accusations, Sgarbi remains steadfast in his innocence regarding the Manetti painting, insisting that “it will be proved that mine is an original and that the elements, including the candle, are part of the painting,” reports Daniel Verdu of El Pais, per Euronews’ translation.

“I’m very relaxed,” adds Sgarbi. “It’s all make-believe, all of it.”

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