Court Denies Italy’s Request for Return of Disputed da Vinci Work

Switzerland has denied a request from the Italian government to hand over an Italian Renaissance portrait that was once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and offered for sale for more than $100 million.

Swiss police impounded the painting, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, in a bank vault in Lugano in 2015, at the urging of the Italian government, which said its Italian owner, had failed to acquire the necessary export license to take the painting out of Italy.

Italy’s strict laws set forfeiture as the penalty for illegal export of cultural heritage.

But the Swiss Supreme Court said on May 29 that the conditions for a handover are not met, overturning a ruling last year by the country’s federal criminal court. The criminal court had called for the painting to be transferred to Italy on the basis of mutual assistance in criminal matters.

The Supreme Court said a request based on international mutual criminal assistance conventions should only be met in the case of activity that is also criminal in the country receiving the request.

“The export of private cultural property out of Switzerland to Italy is not a criminal action under Swiss law,” said Marc Weber, the lawyer for the painting’s owner, Emidia Cecchini.

In 2017, Ms. Cecchini was found guilty by an Italian court of transferring abroad an item of cultural interest without an export license. She served a period of community service as her penalty, her lawyer said.

She has argued that the painting has been the property of her family for more than a century and was kept in Switzerland for decades. She said she only took it to Italy briefly in 2010.

Italian authorities had brought charges after the discovery in 2013 that the painting, which a scholar had attributed to Leonardo, was being offered for sale and that it had been in Italy three years earlier.

Laboratory tests have dated the painting, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, to between 1460 and 1650. Carlo Pedretti, a former professor emeritus of Italian Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles, who died last year, first identified it as a Leonardo but later denied the attribution.

Other scholars have dismissed any attribution to Leonardo.

Isabella d’Este was the Marchioness of Mantua and an important patron of the arts in Renaissance Italy. Reuters reported that the Italy’s Justice Ministry declined to comment on the Swiss ruling.

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