Controversies Italy

The mystery of the Vasari archive sale

Is the €150m deal with a Russian businessman finally off the table?

Luciano Scala, a representative of the Italian ministry of cultural heritage, and the Festari heirs shake hands after an auction to sell the Vasari archive was called off in March

One of the art world’s most gripping and convoluted sagas, involving the Italian government, a mysterious Russian businessman and a Renaissance master, has taken on a new, unexpected turn. The sale of the Arezzo-based archive of Giorgio Vasari (1511-74)—which includes correspondence from five Renaissance popes and the Medici rulers of Florence, as well as 17 letters from Michelangelo—to a Russian buyer appears to be falling apart. The move is the latest twist in a long-running saga that began in September 2009 with the reported sale of the Vasari documents by the then owner of the archive, the late Giovanni Festari, to Vasilij Stepanov, of the Russian firm Ross Engineering, part of the Ross Group, for €150m.

Sale cancelled?

Calling from Moscow, Stepanov has told us that despite the fact that the archive had recently been cleared for sale by an Italian court, the deal was now off. He said he had received information that suggested “that, all along, the Italians had no intention of selling the archive, but planned to coerce the Italian government into paying the contracted price”. He added that he was acting in good faith throughout: “I was offered the archive. The people who brought the deal to me assured me of its viability, as well as the commercial sense of the transaction. So, I considered the archive as an interesting investment opportunity. Again, as soon as I learned about their true intentions, I decided to sever my contacts with them. I consider the deal closed.”

This version of events is disputed by Antonio Capuano, a spokesman for the Festari family who emailed us a statement. He said he “had no evidence that Stepanov had any doubts about the validity and legality of the transaction. The sale procedures were all strictly followed, in accordance with Italian law.” He added: “There has never been any intention to coerce the Italian state. In fact, in September 2010, the Festaris asked the state to give up its right to pre-empt the sale [that is, to buy at the price established by the market] in order to proceed with the contract with the Ross Group.”

The deal

Vasari’s archive was rediscovered in 1911 by the German Renaissance scholar Carl Frey while researching the archive of the Spinelli dynasty of bankers. In 1921, the Vasari archive was transferred to the Casa Vasari (the Vasari museum in Arezzo) where it remains to this day. After the death of the last Countess Rasponi-Spinelli in 1985, the Spinelli estate passed to Giovanni Festari, her nephew. In 1994, the Italian government ruled that the archive must remain at the Casa Vasari.

In 2006, due to mounting tax debts, Festari was actively looking for a buyer. One of the directors of Bloomsbury Auctions in Rome, Mario Bertolo, recalls: “I first met Giovanni Festari a few years ago. He was looking for a buyer and I had a meeting with him to discuss the content of the archive and the possible price. I informed him, that, according to my calculations, the archive was worth not more than €1.5m. He wanted 20.” In his statement to The Art Newspaper, Capuano alleged that the Italian government also considered buying the archive that year at €75m but could not raise the money.

It is likely that Festari was first put in contact with Ross Engineering in early 2009 through the businessman Enrico De Martino. “I was told that the archive was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a collection no one else has,” said Stepanov. With no background in collecting art, Stepanov, 44, is a former Internal Forces officer operating in real estate and management business. “My associates in charge of the due diligence [procedures] assured me that the price is right and fair,” reiterated Stepanov, who declared the archive “a world treasure worthy of an exhibition at the State Hermitage in St Petersburg”.

As news of the 2009 deal emerged, however, questions were raised almost immediately about the circumstances of the sale. Some speculated about the identity of the buyer, while others questioned the very high price. The two factors led to suggestions that the transaction was devised to push the Italian government, which had a 180-day “right of pre-emption period” following the contract signing, into making a counter-offer. Public pressure was mounting on the government over the prospect of such a famous collection passing into foreign hands—despite assurances by Guido Cosulich, the Festaris’ lawyer, that Ross Engineering had accepted that the archive could not be moved from Arezzo. “Vasari is an essential part of our national identity, not an investment opportunity or a PR stunt,” said Fortunato Galtieri, creator of the Facebook group “Save the Vasari Archive”. The group aims to “raise the voice of all concerned against the depletion of our national patrimony”.

Seizure

In March 2010, the public prosecutor in Rome ordered the seizure of the archive by Tuscan police and instigated a “criminal investigation for fraud against the Italian state”, according to a spokesman for the ministry of culture. Cosulich told The Art Newspaper at the time that Stepanov needed to present himself to the ministry to demonstrate that Ross Engineering was a valid business and to confirm that he wanted the acquisition to proceed.

In a further surprise move, the tax agency Equitalia placed the archive up for auction on 9 March 2010 to recover tax debts of €700,000 owed by the four Festari heirs. According to our sister paper Il Giornale dell’Arte, a ministry of culture representative, Luciano Scala, aimed to purchase the archive at the auction.

However, the sale was cancelled when a judge in Tuscany accepted an appeal from the Festari family, who argued that the auctioneer’s estimate of €2.6m was too low. Cosulich maintained at the time that the Festari heirs “[were] going to pay the taxes in question” regardless of the sale to Ross Engineering. On 19 March 2010, a civil court in Arezzo ruled that the auction and estimate were legitimate with a new sale date to be announced, though this development was halted by the police seizure.

In December, the court in Rome lifted its bar on the sale of archive. As we went to press, the future of the archive remained unclear.

Yale connection

Meanwhile, an official government report requested by members of the cultural preservation committee of the Italian Senate (an “Act of Judicial Enquiry” published 26 January 2010 by the culture minister Sandro Bondi) has revealed that an integral part of the Vasari archive, along with more than 150,000 Spinelli documents, was sold in 1988 and 1989 to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven. This batch included folders containing Vasari’s correspondence with Cosimo I de’ Medici. “It’s not a Michelangelo, but it is the historical equivalent of it. For centuries to come, this will be a foundation for thinking about the Renaissance and early modern [period],” declared the late Benno Schmidt, then president of Yale, in an interview with the New York Times in October 1988.

But how the papers made it from the Festaris to New Haven remains a mystery. According to Diana Toccafondi, archives superintendent of Tuscany, researchers had been looking for the missing Spinelli archive “for decades” until tracking it down to “a country residence outside Florence” in 1984. When they arrived, “Giovanni Festari told us that [it had] been stolen. We asked if he had contacted the police and he promised he would. But he never did,” she claims.

Antonio Capuano confirmed that part of the archive was stolen, but says the police were notified and failed to act. “The Festaris aim to recover the part of the archive that was stolen in 1984 from a villa owned by the Rasponi-Spinelli family. This [part] ended up at Yale University,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Bondi report states that the Spinelli archive was sold through a dealer in Switzerland. The Yale Library catalogue lists the Lugano-based antiquarian bookseller Bredford BV Libri Rari as the vendor. Its director, Francesco Radaeli, says he only acted as an expert consultant during the examination of the papers. “This is just terrible,” he said. “I was not the vendor, nor acting on behalf of the vendor. I don’t even know who the vendor is.” The Italian culture ministry declined to comment.

The newly appointed director of Yale’s Beinecke Library, Edwin Schroeder, also declined to comment, citing his insufficient knowledge of the matter.

Vasari anniversary

The intrigue casts a shadow over the celebrations planned this year for the 500th anniversary of Vasari’s birth. The Festari family was reportedly due to pay €2.7m from the deal to Arezzo’s council to help fund the festivities. The final word goes to the sanguine Giuseppe Fanfani, the mayor of Arezzo, who said: “The Vasari archive cannot, and should not, be moved from Arezzo, thus reducing its estimated value. We did not believe the sale was genuine from the outset. The price was ridiculous, far too high.”

Alexander von Hahn

With additional reporting by Gareth Harris

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