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Legal battle over €15m Leonardo discovery

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The owner of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing who has been barred from selling and exporting it overseas has filed a lawsuit against France’s culture minister.

The little brown ink sketch, titled Étude pour un Saint-Sébastien dans un paysage (Study for a Saint Sebastian in a Landscape, about 1478-83), was first valued at between €20,000 and €30,000 by the French auction house Tajan in 2016. When multiple experts agreed that it was a genuine Da Vinci, the price was raised to €15 million.

Soon after, it was designated as a “national treasure,” preventing it from being exported and giving the cultural ministry 30 months to acquire it on behalf of the Musée du Louvre.

According to French news outlets AFP and Le Figaro, the cultural ministry made an offer of €10 million to the elderly owner, who declined it; the culture ministry subsequently retracted its offer.

Consequently, the drawing’s owner requested an export certificate in order to sell it abroad. The lawyer for the French government says that the ministry has not refused to issue the export certificate but has merely suspended the procedure while a claim that the drawing is stolen is investigated.

According to Le Figaro, Olivier Baratelli, the lawyer defending Dr. Jean B., says: “A culture ministry worthy of its name would have ensured that the French state would buy such a drawing. The French state only has its own heritage and culture and is no longer even capable of preserving it. The way in which [French culture minister] Roselyne Bachelot has handled this case is catastrophic.”

Baratelli has filed a lawsuit in Paris’ judicial court against Bachelot and Claire Chastanier, the deputy director of the culture ministry’s collections, to force them to issue the export certificate. A hearing was due to be held three days ago, on Monday, but was postponed. According to Le Figaro, the court’s president has asked Baratelli to justify by October 27 why he has brought the case before a civil court rather than an administrative court, as it concerns litigation between a private individual and the French state. Other news outlets have reported that the French state has three months to provide justification for its refusal to issue an export certificate (however, this is not mentioned in Le Figaro).

Dr. Jean B. has also filed a lawsuit at Paris’ criminal court against Tajan and its president Rodica Seward to which he had entrusted the painting, alleging “an attempt at extortion”, “blackmail” and “breach of trust”, according to AFP.

Tajan is accused of planning to sell the artwork before the 30-month term expired, without consulting Dr. Jean B., and of refusing to surrender the Da Vinci drawing, according to the lawsuit.

Tajan is claiming €2 million for the costs of canceling the sale. “This artwork was discovered, authenticated, certified, and pushed by Tajan,” said Tajan’s lawyer, Basile Ader. It alleges that another judge had already dismissed Dr. Jean B.’s request to reclaim his drawing in 2020. In December, the matter will be heard.


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