A Picasso painting deemed too important to leave Spain has been seized from a yacht in Corsica. Head of a Young Woman (1906), a rare work from the artist’s early ‘Gósol period’ (so named after the Catalonian town where he was living at the time) is valued at more than €25million, and belongs to the Spanish billionaire Jaime Botín. He recently lost a legal battle to export the work to Britain (rumour has it that the piece was intended for sale at Christie’s) after the Spanish culture ministry declared it a ‘national treasure of exceptional importance’.
Botín wasn’t on board the yacht at the time but he owns a stake in the Euroshipping Charter Company that owns it. (It’s named Adix after his second wife). The work has been kept on the boat for a while: in his court appeal against the export bar Botín argued that Euroshipping was in fact the real owner of the piece, and that Spanish law didn’t apply on the British-registered vessel. It didn’t work. When French officials boarded the Adix, the captain produced a Spanish court judgement from May 2015 demanding that the work stay in the country. They were apparently en route to Switzerland in an attempt to export the painting there.
This is a neat encapsulation of an awkward issue affecting the modern art world: nations assert their cultural claim to works of art without, necessarily, the means to acquire them; and a few private collectors, aggrieved at the restrictions placed on their possessions, leverage their wealth and internationalism to try to wriggle free. At its simplest this sort of thing can breed bad blood – at its worst, court cases. And either way, it shifts attention away from those collectors and patrons who work closely with institutions or culture ministries to bolster museum collections through life-time giving or promised gifts. Earlier this year Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Isabella d’Este was recovered from a Swiss vault in more nefarious circumstances. It had been removed from Italy without the proper export license, and was in the process of being sold for €120million when an Italian investigation into insurance fraud and illicit trafficking brought it to light.
The details of this latest story are still emerging, but it’s certainly an irony that Botín should be implicated. One might imagine that the chair of the board of trustees of the Botín Foundation in Santander (which does good work funding contemporary art and research in Spain) would be sympathetic to the government’s attempts to safeguard Spanish artistic heritage – even if it does come at a cost to him.