Morandi? He would be happy seeing his works going around the world. Interview with Leonardo Piccinini


Interview with Leonardo Piccinini, art historian, antiquities market expert, in favor of cultural property export reform.

In the coming days, the competition bill, which contains changes to the Cultural Heritage Code regarding the circulation and export of goods, will be voted on in the Senate.This is a real reform that has been causing debate among operators for months, who are sharply divided between those who look favorably on the new regulations and those who fear that Italy’s cultural heritage will be damaged. We decided to interview two art historians on different positions to discuss and deepen the issues under debate. Therefore, we propose here the interview with Leonardo Piccinini, an art historian expert on the antiquarian market, a signature of the magazine Art and Dossier and a member of the Associazione Amici di Brera. Interview edited by Federico Diamanti Giannini.

FDG. Many analysts say that Article 68 of the competition decree that will amend the Cultural Heritage Code and reform the circulation of cultural goods will bring Italy closer to Europe. In what terms could this rapprochement occur?
LP. Right now the cultural heritage market system in Italy is at a standstill. It is at a standstill because the laws on export are so stringent that they make the art market system in Italy uncompetitive compared to that of foreign countries. Excessive control, which holds together grandma’s wicker armchair and the sixteenth-century painting, means that an American who wants to buy the famous wicker armchair is forced to wait more than a hundred days to know whether he can take it home or not: and this makes not only the big darte market, but also the small and very small market completely penalized.

And this situation clearly has important reflections on the market....
Yes, it has important repercussions on the market, and I would also say on private property, which in our state should be a concept to be protected, in the sense that anyone who has an object of property should dispose of it freely, while now they cannot, and this is not only for exceptional cases but also for minor works, for furniture objects, ceramics, plates... everything is submitted to export offices, without a choice of what is really important and what is not. The proposal going to Parliament is a mediation between a demand from market participants and what we might call a fair balance, a fair need for protection. The value thresholds that were requested were much higher, in line with the European value thresholds ... here it came down to 13,500 euros. As for the time thresholds, it would go from 50 to 70 years: the request was for 100 years. To reiterate: this is a mediation. So the minister is right in pointing to the reform as his own choice, because it is not the demand of the practitioners, but a political mediation, and I find it right that it is, because it is politics that has to decide on these issues. And this is a political issue, in the highest sense of the word.

The 13,500 euros, however, represents a market value and not an absolute value: there could be historically important works that have a market value below that figure, and in this way important assets could come out, endowed with historical and cultural value for our heritage...
I repeat: the 13,500 euro threshold is very low, and the demand was about ten times higher. I would add that if I have to comment on all the voices I have read, and even some of the names I have seen in the collection of signatures against the law, I would say that contesting the law from the status quo is like seeing the detail and not the whole. The detail is that, meanwhile, those who challenge this law often have very little knowledge of the market. Those who observe the market and also know about private collections actually know that there are no are great masterpieces at risk of leaving Italy. Second, there is a problem with the conception of heritage. I call them sovereignists, sovereignists la Sgarbi, who supports Trump, the exit from the euro and consistently protectionism even in the circulation of works of art, they are sovereignists no less than the leghists, for example, and they promote the idea of concentrating anything within the borders of the Italian state, regardless of the contexts, which would be the real element of protection. I believe that the law should be concerned with protecting historical contexts, not the work of art as such: if a Pontormo painting (despite the fact that Pontormo is a great artist) has no precise ties to its context or to the situation to which the work is historically connected, why should it not be allowed to leave Italian territory? Why can a Magnasco work be in Bari and not in Zurich? What is the geographical difference? It is still a work out of context. Context is related to the specific place for which the opera darte was created. An altarpiece cannot be detached from the altar in which it is placed, and we all agree on that. But if a seventeenth-century still life stands in the villa of a gentleman in Piacenza or leaves for Brindisi, nothing changes: it is already out of its context, so at that time the work can safely circulate without any problems. It seems to me, in short, that the naysayers have a reactionary view, a view of the patriot boundaries. The 1939 law was written by the best of jurists, but we were in a profoundly different, much poorer Italy, a year after the racial laws, it was an Italy against everyone. I think todayItaly is a country of big collectors, big buyers, so there are totally different needs. The law must not be seen as something unchangeable: the law follows the needs of society. Especially when we talk about a law on cultural property. Let’s be clear: I voted No in the December 4 referendum, but much more important values were at stake there. Here it is a question of slightly changing the position of the law on exportation: in the face of a feared danger of the exit of who knows what works (which in reality are not there), I see a much greater danger, namely the disappearance of the art market in Italy. And this has serious consequences: not to mention the fact that those who work in the art market are workers who should be protected according to Article 1 of the Constitution, we can also just point out that the art market in Italy supports art history. The Association of Antiquarians of Italy, for example, supports the Federico Zeri Foundation, supports art history studies, supports restorations. Italian restorers, who are among the best in the world, now have to turn abroad because everything in Italy is at a standstill. The Italian art dealers themselves are opening branches abroad because there are easier laws, so it is important that the art market in Italy continues to be flourishing, that the Biennale Internazionale dellAntiquariato in Florence represents one of the high points of the world art system. Those who sign against this reform should know these things before looking at only one part of the whole.

They also say that the reform could even increase the size of our heritage, because a growth in the national heritage would be linked to a strong, well-structured private collecting, and not harnessed in too tight meshes...
I think so, too. Abroad the market system is viewed very favorably. If we think of what the recent Salon du Dessin in Paris was like, where there is this virtuous relationship between art dealers and French museums large and small, all linked by a single project (and France has the closest system to ours), or if we think of England with its auction houses and with its Old Master Weeks, we realize what it means to help the market system: historically, the market and artworks have always gone together. Paolucci told me that during the Cold War his colleagues beyond the curtain declared their envy of the Western world, where the art market supported art history studies. Everyone can understand this by looking at the studies that were made because of a thriving market. So in my opinion the system should be helped and encouraged. By the way, those who work in the art market today have a relatively low age, there are children and grandchildren of antiquarians who take over this work among great difficulties. I repeat: I do not see great dangers or problems, or great masterpieces coming out ... I see instead great maneuvers to repress the art system. Here in Milan, they have even gone so far as to notify depaque cars. We often hear that the percentage, out of the total, of works that are notified, is a laughable percentage: but in this case, quantity doesn’t matter, quality matters. A few years ago a pair of views by Canaletto was bound. Canaletto is a typical case: should it remain in Italy? Does it have a connection to the context? Yes and no, in the sense that many views of Venice by Canaletto were done for English nobles and then returned to Italy in very recent years. Laver bound two Canaletto views from the Alemagna Collection means that anyone who has a Canaletto in their home today will never sell it: that is blocking private property, that is blocking the free use that someone can make of an asset. In this case nothing is saved and nothing is protected; it is just a property blockade. Those who accuse the fact that value thresholds are a purely patrimonial view of artwork, actually when they think of Canaletto’s pair, they are making just a purely economic assessment, because they cannot look at the context. When I hear these rants about the extension from fifty to seventy years old, it makes me think that Giorgio Morandi would have been overjoyed if his works had ended up around the world ... because it is an art born for the market. It is not a fresco by Giotto-they are completely different worlds. Larte of the last hundred years was born for the market, it is meant for circulation.

Canaletto, Venezia, veduta del Canal Grande da Santa Croce verso gli Scalzi
Canaletto, Venice, View of the Grand Canal from Santa Croce towards the Scalzi (c. 1735-1742; oil on canvas, 47 x 78 cm; Private collection). It is one of two paintings of the pair in the Alemagna Collection.

However, even with the current system, Italy does not prevent the release of cultural goods, and this is self-evident ... the most glaring case for example is Orazio Gentileschi’s Danae that came out in 1975, but still, the data says that in 2015, compared to 12,588 requests for free circulation, the certificates issued were 12,300. So was it really necessary to loosen the restrictions or was it enough, for example, to increase the staff of the export offices, which as we know is reduced to the bone, or still facilitate the work of the Superintendencies in some other way?
On the percentage of certificates, as mentioned, quality matters: if you block very significant works, those then serve as models. If someone has a Fontana painting in his house and knows that another Fontana painting has been notified, he tends to keep it hidden. Or he sells it under the counter. Prohibition has always made underground trade easier. I repeat: I don’t see big problems. I think there is just great prejudice in what I read, and I think there is really a sovereignist ideology that sees the patriot borders as an insurmountable constraint. But, here we are in Europe, though: we should try to make the European system more united not by starting from the status quo, but by going beyond it. Of course, I think it will be difficult to get to a European defense minister or a European economy minister quickly, but here is a European culture minister would really be a step to take in building European identity, because if there is one thing that identifies us, it is culture.

Orazio Gentileschi, Danae
Orazio Gentileschi, Danae (c. 1623; oil on canvas, 161.3 cm x 226.7 cm; Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum). Formerly in the collections of the noble Sauli family of Genoa, it remained with the heirs until 1975, when it left Italy and was purchased by a London collector. Today it is at the Getty Museum, which acquired it in 2016).

An estimate by Tefaf calculates that, on the global market for cultural property, Italy has a share of just l1%, compared to, for example, 20% in the United Kingdom, which, however, has a more open regulatory regime, for example, the document that is equivalent to our self-certification there applies to paintings under 180,000, as opposed to the ?13,500 that, as we have abundantly mentioned, will be introduced by the ddl. After the reform should we expect some sort of quote-unquote “take-off” of the Italian market, or is there still a long way to go in this regard?
It’s still long in the sense that there are also other problems, for example taxation problems, and then in any case I think the one introduced by the reform is only a small respite, because you go from 50 to 70 years... in 30 years we will be back to the beginning again. In the meantime, we should, in my opinion, train differently, make new hires in cultural heritage, make the export offices more stringent about the works to be preserved for heritage, provide the ministry with funds for purchases. However, let’s be clear: I think our museums do not need large purchases, Italian museums already contain practically everything. Our heritage is very ramified, the characteristic of our heritage is that it is not found only in museums, consequently to know Lombard painting one has to go to Treviglio, one has to see the Portinari Chapel... one cannot limit oneself only to museums. Then, as mentioned, it would be necessary for people working in export offices to be properly trained, but not only that: it would be necessary for them to earn more. In the Superintendencies, people earn too little, and if they earn little, they don’t have the money to travel, to travel, to document, to buy books, to learn. And then it would be necessary, I repeat, to provide museums with funds to be able to make eventual acquisitions, in very rare cases: we already have basically everything in Italy. This may be a very harsh consideration, but I would say that every single painting that is in the Galleria Borghese or the Galleria Doria Pamphilj is more important than everything that is on the market in Maastricht (with some exceptions): therefore, we need to focus on protecting and promoting what we already have, rather than putting a spoke in the wheels of those who try to sell works of art that may be important, but are not fundamental to the national artistic heritage. We need, in my opinion, to protect contexts-the word contexts should go into legislation because in my opinion that is the real point of the issue.

Let’s close with a quick thought on an issue raised by those who are against the reform. There are fears that the new regulations may, in some way, go against Article 9 of the Constitution....
Well, Article 9 is just as valid as Article 1. Right now we’re losing a lot of jobs in the cultural heritage market system, just look at the amount of people that I also know who are opening galleries abroad. There is a significant loss of jobs. I think we protect culture and cultural heritage less than our colleagues abroad do, for example in France, Germany or the United Kingdom, countries that have more open legislation than ours. The real problem today is to keep together the two requirements of protection and free movement of goods, ideas, people, and works of art. Artwork is a cultural production and it is important that it circulates. I value the idea of a painting by Fontana circulating in Europe, because it would be a cultural growth for everyone. At the recent meeting in Florence on the subject, the director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, spoke, and he mentioned, of course, that English law is different from ours, but he also said something that I really liked, which was that he mentioned that the English system is based on four points that form the basis on which English export law is based. They are these: the protection of the interests of the individual who wants to sell the work, the protection of the interests of the person who buys the work, the protection of the interests of the state as a public heritage that may or may not lose a cultural asset, and the protection of the image of the country, in this case of Britain as an art market. The sense is that if you block or try to tie up a sale that has relative importance, in that way you damage the image that England has as the home of the darte market, and that’s a very important liberal position because effectively the buyer knows that in that place he can buy a darte work, he’s protected, the state doesn’t block it. And this is an advantage that England has over many other countries. Why is Maastricht such an important place for the darte market? Because there is fair taxation, because the public can go and buy freely. However, how much better is it for a foreigner to come to Florence to buy at the Biennale in Palazzo Corsini? How much better is it for Florence and for the antiquarians who have been there for decades now to network and pool a value that is really important to Italian culture? In my opinion what is not lost by widening these links is lost instead by leaving the current situation as it is, because there are jobs and knowledge being lost, this has been going on for many years now. Let’s make sure that this is not lost altogether.