A deputy culture minister in Italy is under investigation, accused of laundering stolen goods, in particular a Baroque painting that had been reported stolen from a castle in Piedmont, Italy, a decade ago.
The deputy minister, Vittorio Sgarbi, who is an art historian and critic, as well as a media personality, has said he is innocent.
The tale of the investigation began in 2013, when, according to police documents, a painting was reported stolen from the castle, which had been a restaurant for a time. Eight years later, in 2021, Mr. Sgarbi featured a painting called “The Capture of St. Peter,” attributed to the 17-century artist Rutilio Manetti, from his own collection, in an exhibit that he curated in Lucca, Tuscany.
This month, prosecutors in the central Italian town of Macerata confiscated “The Capture of St. Peter,” saying in a statement issued with Italy’s art theft police that they believe that the painting reported stolen from the castle in Piedmont and the painting Mr. Sgarbi exhibited are one and the same. Mr. Sgarbi, though under investigation, has not been charged with a crime.
The inquiry comes after an investigation of the reported theft of the Piedmont painting by the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and “Report,” an investigative television program on the national broadcaster RAI 3, interviewing restorers and associates of Mr. Sgarbi.
The owner of the castle told the reporters and said in a police statement that the painting went missing shortly after a man had visited the castle and offered to buy the artwork, which she had refused to sell. The man was identified in the television investigation as a former collaborator and friend of Mr. Sgarbi.
The investigative reporters also spoke to a restorer in Brescia, in northern Italy, who told them that he had been asked by Mr. Sgarbi to restore a painting fitting the description of the Piedmont work.
In a telephone interview, the restorer, Gianfranco Mingardi, said Mr. Sgarbi had contacted him in 2013 to say that he was sending him a painting to restore. Mr. Mingardi said a version of the painting was delivered as a rolled-up canvas, and, “unrolling it, the paint detached,” so he had to be very careful, he said. It was cut around the outer edges, Mr. Mingardi said.
He carried out the restoration in 2016. “It took time to restore,” he said.
Mr. Sgarbi’s lawyer, Giampaolo Cicconi, declined to be interviewed by a New York Times reporter, writing in an email that “in this delicate phase I don’t intend to release statements.”
Interviewed by “Report,” Mr. Sgarbi said his painting was found in the attic of a villa his mother bought in 2000.
Mr. Sgarbi has argued that the two works are different, in particular noting that his painting includes a small torch in the top left-hand corner, while the Piedmont painting (known only through photographs) does not. He has said they are two versions of the same painting.
“The Capture of St. Peter” will now be examined by a group of experts, who will try to determine whether the two works could match.
Whoever stole the Piedmont painting in 2013 cut it from its frame and replaced it with a scale-sized plasticized photocopy, according to police documents. In cutting it out, they left a small fragment that was found when investigative reporters visited the castle last year as part of the news investigation.
Experts working for prosecutors will try to determine whether Mr. Sgarbi’s painting could fit that frame, and whether the fragment could fit his painting. They will also try to determine whether the torch in Mr. Sgarbi’s painting was painted in the 17th century or added later.
Mr. Sgarbi is not new to controversy. Known for his quick temper and use of foul language, he has been in Italian headlines for decades.
Last year, he came under scrutiny because despite being a member of Parliament, he was paid for public events, including conferences or book presentations, leading one of Italy’s antitrust authorities to look into whether Mr. Sgarbi has been involved in activities “incompatible with being part of the government.” A ruling is expected within weeks.
In the wake of the latest uproar, opposition parties have called on Mr. Sgarbi to be removed as deputy culture minister, and the opposition Five Star Movement presented a motion in Parliament to that effect that is expected to be discussed next week.
The government has remained mum, but the complaint to the antitrust authority was initiated by his boss, the culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano.
After “The Capture of St. Peter” was confiscated by Italy’s art police, Mr. Sgarbi said on social media that he had spontaneously given up the painting so that it could be thoroughly examined. “I am absolutely serene,” he wrote on Facebook. “I have nothing to fear.”