Dispute over the Isleworth Mona Lisa goes to Italian courtrooms

Posted on: September 25, 2019 by

The Court of Florence is dealing with a case involving the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’, a painting attributed to Leonardo, though with some uncertainty.

The Louvre Mona Lisa

The Isleworth Mona Lisa

Whilst the question of attribution is not the focus of this post, it should be noted that following a debate lasting for more than a century about the attribution of this painting, experts are divided between considering this artwork as the portrait of a young Lisa Gherardini made by Leonardo, later represented in the worldwide famous Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre in Paris, and others who consider this painting to be a copy after the latter.

As for the facts of the case, it has been gathered that, after multiple transactions, Lady Elisabeth Mayer became the owner of 75% of the artwork. After her death in 2008, this property share went to an international foundation called the “Mona Lisa Foundation”. The remaining 25% of the artwork is claimed by a family who is currently suing the foundation before the Court of Florence to have the painting seized. Avv. Giovanni Battista Protti, a lawyer based in Padua, is acting for the claimants.

The foundation, presented with the opportunity to corroborate the attribution of the painting, lent the work to a temporary exhibition at Palazzo Bastigi in Florence, which ended in July 2019. When the exhibition closed, the painting was to be sent back to Switzerland for storage.

The owners of the 25% share asked the Court in Florence to apply Italian law on joint-ownership to the present dispute. They complained that all decisions regarding the artwork so far had been made without their consultation. They also complained about the Foundation’s intention to keep the painting in storage, whilst their wish would be for the work to be shown to the public.

Aside from the exclusively private issue of the property regime applicable to the joint-ownership of this painting and the international rules on conflict of laws, the complexity of this case is furthered by the fact that it also deals with matters of public law. According to the research undertaken by the plaintiffs, the artwork appears to have been in Italy in 1922. As is widely known, Italy has a very protective and strict legislation on artworks defined as “beni culturali”. Said legislation imposes restrictions on the export of artworks, requiring these objects to be examined by public authorities in order to be granted an export licence. This means that because the artwork had already been in Italy in 1922, its subsequent removal from Italy sometime after that year would have been subjected to the aforementioned export controls. As such, the plaintiffs asked the Court of Florence to rule on whether that export was compliant with Italian export controls. The plaintiffs also asked the Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities (Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali) to verify and retrace the export licences that had been granted for this artwork throughout its history.

Aside from the legal issues discussed above, this case also highlights what is the essence of the Italian approach to the safeguard of cultural assets, where the long-standing concern with the interest of ‘the community’ to enjoy cultural artworks limits in a relevant way the owner’s right to dispose of assets of this kind, in what is an exception to the general principle of full and complete property set out in the notion of dominium, as stated in article 832 of the Italian Civil Code.

After this month’s hearing, on the 9th of September, the case has been adjourned to October 15th, when this interesting legal dispute could at last be settled.

Image credits: Louvre Mona Lisa and Isleworth Mona Lisa via Wikimedia Commons