ROME — Italy’s art squad police said Tuesday they have thwarted the potential illegal sale by a Vienna auction house of a 17th-century painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, a celebrated Baroque artist.
Carabinieri police said that art merchants had allegedly described the work as being painted by a follower of Gentileschi, and not the artist herself, to fraudulently obtain export permission from Italian authorities.
Gentileschi was unusual for achieving success as a female painter in the male-dominated art world of her time. She also is a symbol of courageous women for testifying, even while being tortured, against a man who raped her in her bedroom while she was a teen.
“The painting was on the verge of being auctioned,” Carabinieri Lt. Col. Alfio Gullotta told Italian state TV in Bari, Italy, where the returned masterpiece, “Caritas Romana” (Roman Charity) was shown to reporters.
Gentileschi’s early work, with strikingly dark sections of her canvases contrasting with her illuminated subjects, reflects influences by Baroque giant Caravaggio.
Several of her works offer a bloody vision of Biblical or mythological stories, many of them focused on the struggle of strong women. In some of her paintings, the subjects are women wielding knives, swords or spikes against men.
A criminal probe is in its early stages, said the Carabinieri, who began their investigation of the oil painting’s movements in 2020.
Authorities said the artwork is worth at least 2 million euros (dollars). It was commissioned by a nobleman in Puglia in the mid-17th century.
Italian authorities said they suspect that the go-betweens, availing themselves of an intermediary based in Tuscany, aimed to have the painting sold abroad, and deliberately neglected to supply historic documentation about the work’s real origins.
The specialized art squad includes police officers who regularly pore over auction catalogues and online offerings, on the lookout for descriptions or images of any artworks or antiquities that have either been stolen or risk being illegally exported from Italy.