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Dispute over 13th-century painting stolen by one of its owners has been resolved

Questions remain over authorship of panel that could be by Duccio

A long-term title dispute over a 13th-century oil panel, argued to be by Duccio, has been resolved, prompted by a match by the ArtClaim Database.

The painting, ‘Madonna and Child’, had been eventually split between over 20 parties since it was bought by two art dealers—Michael Hennessy and John Ryan—in London in 1977. In 1986, one of these other owners stole the work from a bank vault in Geneva, and it was not seen again until it appeared at auction at Sotheby’s in New York in early 2014 (though international police forces were notified in 1991). The work’s consignor to Sotheby’s was later identified as the thief’s widow.

Once the match was confirmed, Sotheby’s voluntarily withdrew the work from auction, law enforcement agencies were informed and Art Recovery International, which runs the ArtClaim Database, was appointed to represent the interests of the two original owners. 

In June 2014, the US government seized the work and filed a complaint that listed the painting as a defendant. These proceedings have concluded in a settlement between the US government and the owners (or their heirs, including the widow of the thief).

Chris Marinello, the chief executive of Art Recovery Group, says “these cases always demonstrate that recording thefts, and other title disputes on a database like ours can eventually bring some measure of justice to the victims of art crime.” Development of his database began in late 2013, as a direct competitor to the Art Loss Register, where Marinello previously worked.

The painting is now expected to be sold, though this time with clear title. However, its authorship is still in question. In a Sotheby’s 2014 catalogue it was recorded as by a ”Florentine painter, active in the ambit of Cimabue, circa 1285-1290”, with a $600,000 to $800,000 sale estimate. However, a 1984 article in Apollo magazine, written by the art historian and academic Alastair Smart, argues for its authenticity as a Duccio, which would increase its value considerably.