Vittorio Sgarbi speaks: We need to create a catalog of ancient goods in private hands

Taking his cue from the purchase of Antiveduto Gramatica's Concerto by the Royal Museums of Turin, Vittorio Sgarbi, who considers it too expensive, launches a proposal: create a catalog of antique goods in private possession. Interview.

A catalog of antique goods, dating from before 1920, in the possession of private individuals: this is Vittorio Sgarbi’s idea to make the market more agile and free both the state and dealers and collectors from the current notification system. According to the undersecretary of culture, with such a catalog the state would know in an immediate way the location of interesting works that end up on the market, and would not have to notify works that are then not purchased. Thecue comes from the recent purchase of Antiveduto Gramatica ’s Concerto for the Royal Museums of Turin. He tells us about it in this interview.

FG. The news of the day are your statements regarding the purchase of Antiveduto Gramatica’s Concerto for the Royal Museums of Turin. Why did you object to it?

VS. There has never been an Antiveduto Gramatica that has made more than 30, 40, 70, 100,000 euros at most. This is a fragment! It’s okay that it’s... that fragment there, but the enthusiasm of the gallery led to a funding request to the ministry that was then approved in September 2022 by the “Technical Scientific Committee,” consisting of three or four scholars (and it was the last act of the Franceschini government). We are therefore called upon to present something that turns out to be bought by us anyway... but it is a foolish expenditure! And to think that we have in Italy an operation of officials whereby we get to notify a Schifano painting from 1962! I said that these things cannot even be imagined: no work that is, let’s say, younger than 1920 deserves to be notified (e.g. Sironi, Capogrossi, Burri, Fontana), and I have given indications with a circular so that we avoid notifying works that are ten years younger than me. Besides, Schifano sells for a million euros in America, and it would open up a market for an Italian artist like those of Burri and Fontana. So, when faced with a very frequent path in the superintendencies, which is the one whereby you bind this and that, which means restricting the market (a fundamental issue that I also spoke about in a conference done in Modena on the subject of insurance of works of art), you block a work of art, you block (what do I know) a Paolini di Voena that you could buy, and then instead you go and buy a fragment of an author that is worth a tenth of what it was was paid, in the freest and most expensive market in the world that is TEFAF in Maastricht. The work was on display there at a million, it was raised to 350,000, Derek Johns sold it with the mediation of Caretto and Occhinegro, and we approved the price of a painter who never made that price. It is a work bought in the most expensive place in the world. I had made a statement saying that more morality is needed! And then it is bizarre that we have to have a press conference for something we bought without us knowing anything about it. We could have said, “Don’t have the press conference!” That is, there is no need to glorify a feat that is actually very dubious because neither the quality of this fragment nor the painter’s market valuations legitimize that figure.

But it is an important fragment nonetheless: it is the missing part of one of the best-known works in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin, joining the other fragment already in the museum’s possession. And how else could the matter have been handled in your opinion?

It is left on the market! There was no need to buy. With so many more important things notified that are not bought--what do I know, a Hayez painting, a Paolini painting notified, and then the state has already calmed down to the seller who has to sell them for a smaller amount. In this case, however, the state has bought on the freest market in the world. Then you don’t understand the logic. It is clear that exports are restricted by a set of rules that are punitive: instead, we need to imagine a constraint that is really a constraint, so I know where the work is that can be sold while keeping the possibility of preemption to us.

And in your opinion, how would the state know the exact location of the works that end up on the market?

We need to strengthen the knowledge systems of private heritage through a knowledge bond and not a police bond: works that are less than eighty years old can be free. Maybe even less than seventy, or less than ninety, let’s put even less than a hundred. Let’s create a system whereby, for example, whoever has a Previati painting in his house, or any painting that is more than a hundred years old, is obliged to disclose its existence. End. In such a way that the state derives knowledge of anything that has artistic interest, in an inventory available to the state, complete with a photograph. Exactly as it is for a moped license plate or an ID card: why should a work of art be less important than a car? Then, by establishing a limit of one hundred years, that is, from 1920 and up, thus up to futurism and metaphysics, the owner notifies the relevant superintendency that he has those works, after which it is not that the superintendency prevents him from selling them; when the owner notifies that he is selling that work in Paris, either it is sold in Paris or it is bought by the state. After that, if it is sold in Paris, the state is nevertheless always left with this microchip so that at the next sale, since France is inside Europe anyway, the state has to keep the preemption alive, it can buy until the last moment. It seems very simple to me: it will not be easy to do this, but it would guarantee an increase in knowledge and a limit to police constraint. Besides, the rules should have a possibility of control, so if I say a work cannot be exported I must have a customs. Now we are faced with a limitation on the value of a private asset because the state establishes a kind of usucaption so if you have a painting that you can sell for a million on the international market, Italy sells it for 100,000. With such a measure you would have more extensive knowledge, a catalog of private works and a possibility of preemption. And it would simplify everything.

What is the state’s knowledge of private heritage in Italy?

I have not yet seen an inventory of the constraints of notified works. However, if we can imagine that at the moment you are constraining a Schifano painting you are thinking of tearing down the San Siro stadium, it must mean that there are some bizarre criteria! That is, there is a shared common good (the San Siro stadium), which is seventy years old, and which in any case has the constraint that I have always claimed and that will have to come, which is the relational one (that is, it is a good that belongs to emotions and customs), so something that you cannot tear down ... and that instead can be torn down. And instead a Schifano painting cannot be sold abroad. Clearly there is something that is not working. So we have to imagine legislation that has weights that correspond to things. Now instead there are conflicting mechanisms between the private collector and the state that reconstruct a scenario similar to the one between Diabolik and Ginko. So is the psychology that I experienced when I joined the superintendency fifty years ago, and all in all it has remained. Instead, a dialogue is needed. Take the example of the Biennale dell’Antiquariato in Florence: you take a tour of the booths, you spot 10 remarkable paintings, there are all the directors of major museums who come there and say, “I want this, this, this and this.” Then the need of the museum becomes a privileged relationship between the seller and the museum itself, and you buy the works. Once this sorting has been done, it is not that the works after ten days are put under bond: what the state is not interested in is sold to whoever wants to buy it. Instead, what happens now is that after a week that the exhibition is open, a given painting is constrained, and it can no longer be sold. Then, if this painting is even from 1962, you make an operation that limits the knowledge of Italian art: there is no way, making an example applied to the United States, that one cannot buy a De Kooning or any other American painting and bring it to Italy. So we have a constraint of a poor country, which during Fascism could be plundered (and it was: by Berenson, by Longhi... ), but today the Italian market (the market of ancient art above all) is made mainly by buyers who bring paintings to auctions in Italy, so we are importing, and this mechanism that dealers and antiquarians and collectors do should be rewarded, not punished. Then if there is the sensational work, you do the pre-emption, like they do in France, and you buy it. Today there are policing mechanisms that criminalize the collector, criminalize the dealer, and also create a further inequality whereby someone who exports and wants to sell a work of ancient art is a criminal, while someone who makes a collection of contemporary art is a patron. It’s all a construction ... and it needs to be measured, especially by redressing a dialogue between superintendents, museum directors and dealers. As has been done precisely now. Now, however, it happens that that famous, strict office that blocks works goes and buys an overpriced work in Maastricht -- and that’s a paradox, isn’t it? And then we who buy it have a committee that says it’s okay, but why is it okay if the market value is 35, 50, 70 or 60, and not 350? Yes, we are interested in the fragment, but it remains a fragment.

So should we expect action on the notification system?

We are already working on that. Already I said to limit the constraints for modern works. Then for example in the Ferrara exhibition there is a cycle of works by Lorenzo Costa, one of which is from an Italian collector who, for fear of notification, does not lend it and does not let people know where it is. We are now opening at the Mart an exhibition on Klimt and his influence on Italian art: some lenders have not lent the works thinking that they risked being notified.

And after what happened to the Rubens exhibition in Genoa similar situations will probably multiply.

There’s an export office there that sees a painting go by that we don’t know where it was, so there’s no certain provenance, it wasn’t in a palace except on the circumstantial level, it was bought in a villa where it was taken by two antiquarians, one of them went out of the picture, he sells it to someone who buys it... hoping it’s Rubens. So when you got the license to export it, the Rubeniaum told you it’s not Rubens, but it’s Rubens and store: if it’s Rubens it’s worth 35-40 million, this is valued at three. And I value it three because I have the blessing of the Rubenianum telling me it’s Rubens and workshop: I then take it to a public exhibition where it’s seized, but I brought it to Italy, so it’s not abroad. It was exported legitimately, it was exported not under a false name (it was in fact exported as “Flemish School”) and there is nothing that doesn’t match the reality of the facts, so I made such a spectacular operation to seize works that were allowed to go out, that went after a few years in evaluation of the Rubenianum that tells me it is Rubens and workshop, so where is the crime? It’s implausible. So this Turin affair is representative. Because a suddenly rich state that doesn’t give a damn about the notifications of the works they have notified and doesn’t buy them, goes and buys in the richest market paying the most for a painting that is worth less than half.

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