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    Theft claim halts sale of Zoffany portrait from Versace's Como villa

    Date: 20 Mar 2009 | | Views: 2867

    Source: Times Online, by Richard Owen

    Celebrity visitors to the villa of Gianni Versace on Lake Como were often stunned by its opulent Neo-Classical interior and the artwork on display.

    What neither the fashion designer — who died 12 years ago — nor his guests knew was that one of his most prized paintings may have been stolen.

    Sotheby’s, which auctioned the contents of Versace’s villa in London yesterday, withdrew an 18th-century portrait by the German artist Johann Zoffany after its subject’s family claimed that it had been stolen from their home in London 30 years ago.

    Descendants of Major George Maule, the subject of the portrait, contacted the Art Loss Register after seeing a photograph of it in the Evening Standard. They said that they recognised the painting, which was estimated to be sold for up to £60,000, as the one that had hung over the mantelpiece in their family home.

    Sotheby’s described the painting in the sale catalogue as “previously untraced and uncatalogued”. Versace is understood to have bought it from a dealer in 1994 or 1995, but it is unclear whether checks were made to establish its provenance. Checks may have proved fruitless because the painting was stolen before the establishment of the Art Loss Register in 1991 and was never added to its list of missing art.

    Even if the painting was stolen, Versace’s estate may still own it rightfully. The statute of limitations on stolen work expires after six years in Britain and ten years in Italy, although the buyer is obliged to make reasonable attempts to determine whether the work was acquired legitimately.

    Zoffany was born in Frankfurt, but settled in England and became a founding member of the Royal Academy. The portrait of Major Maule — acting chief engineer at Madras — is believed to be one of four paintings he created while visiting there in 1783.

    The portrait was one of 550 pieces of furniture, silver, china and artwork from Versace’s villa, Le Fontanelle at Moltrasio on Lake Como, offered at the auction. The sale had reached its high estimate of £2.8 million at its halfway point last night.

    The villa was sold last year. Versace, who was shot dead in Miami in 1997, owned several homes but retreated to Lake Como to relax. It was the venue for parties attended by celebrities including Diana, Princess of Wales, Elton John, Sting and Madonna.

    Artful dodgers

    — In 2005 an American found that six Impressionist paintings stolen from him were to be sold in London. The sale was halted

    — Spanish police interrupted the auction of 81 works attributed to Salvador Dalí in January, saying that 12 were stolen

    — Fourteen stolen miniatures were inadvertently sold in London last year.

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