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A painting by Jacopo Bassano can rightfully remain at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles after a ruling by Italy’s highest administrative court concluded a complex legal dispute over its export from the country in 2018.

On 21 November, the Council of State ruled in favour of the J. Paul Getty Trust and Alex Postiglione, the former owner of the painting who originally applied for an export licence. They had contested the Italian culture ministry’s decision in January 2022 to annul the licence and order the repatriation of the painting due to its “exceptional” importance for Italian cultural heritage.

The ministry had claimed that the Getty Trust’s purchase of the Bassano work in New York in 2021 relied on false information provided in the export licence—which the Pisa export office had granted almost four years earlier. The Getty was given 60 days to return the work to Italy.

The Council of State has now dismissed the ministry’s claim and declared the annulment illegitimate, overruling a lower court that previously favoured the ministry. “This is a landmark decision and will have an important impact on the international circulation of artworks with an Italian provenance,” says the Italian art lawyer Giuseppe Calabi, who represented the Getty Trust in its appeal.

Postiglione, a designer and art historian who is descended from the last king of Burma, first submitted a request for an export licence for the Bassano painting in December 2017. The 16th-century work depicts a biblical episode narrated in the Old Testament and has been known under various titles over the centuries: Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Miracle of the Partridges and Manna, Miracle of the Partridges, Miracle of the Quails and Manna and Miracle of the Quails and Harvest of the Partridges.

The Pisa export office granted the licence after experts at the culture ministry conducted three inspections of the painting. It was then sold and transferred to an unknown individual in the US. In 2021 that owner privately sold the painting to the Getty Trust.

Apparently alerted to the sale by media reports in October 2021, the Italian culture ministry only then annulled the export licence, saying it contained “insufficient and misleading” information about the painting and omitted its “true” title, indicated in the complaint as Biblical Subject.

The ministry also claimed the painting had been presented in poor condition—“dirty and with a patina that […] would have obscured its condition and pictorial quality to a significant extent”, according to the Council of State judgement. Indeed, the condition was perceived to be so poor that the export office reduced its valuation of the work from €120,000 to €70,000.

The ministry backtracked in the annulment decree, declaring that “the painting is an absolute masterpiece by the master from Bassano, of exceptional artistic and historical importance for Veneto Renaissance art and for the national cultural heritage”. The ministry said “the quality and exceptional historical and artistic value of the work and its particularly important cultural interest” had emerged “only at a later date”.

However, the Council of State found there had been “no false declarations” in Postiglione’s application for the export licence, noting that the experts on the licensing committee had themselves made the error in undervaluing the painting. The committee had the “fundamental and delicate task of examining goods of cultural importance”, the judgement said. “It is well known that those goods, especially if they are of a historic period dating back several years or centuries, can and must be given greater attention.”

The ministry’s annulment also fell well outside the statutory 12-month time limit on reconsidering administrative decisions. “The power of internal review must be exercised by the public administration within a reasonable period of time, all the more so when the private party […] has placed a legitimate trust on the regularity of the authorisation,” the judgement said.

Calabi welcomes the decision, which cannot be appealed, although he notes that there are a few decisions to annul export licences every year. “Any institution or any collector based outside of Italy might be reluctant to buy works with an Italian provenance, because even if they have an export licence, the state could theoretically disregard it,” he says. “But, thanks to this case, the state will have to be more careful when annulling export licences.”

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