'Cranach' painting of Venus at centre of Old Masters fakes scandal must be returned to Prince of Liechtenstein, court rules

Seized as part of a forgery investigation, the work has been fully studied and must no longer be kept as evidence

The Venus was sold to the prince as a purported Cranach © Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vaduz–Vienna

The Venus was sold to the prince as a purported Cranach © Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vaduz–Vienna

A painting of a Venus attributed to Lucas Cranach that was seized from its owner, the Prince of Liechtenstein, as part of a high-profile anti-forgery investigation, must now be returned, a court has ruled.

On 15 April, the Parisian court of appeal ruled that the investigating judge Aude Buresi had no further grounds to keep the work as evidence now that the examinations of the panel were completed. Therefore, the restitution “would not obstruct the establishment of truth”, the judge said, and the confiscation must not “harm the rights of an owner of good faith”. At a previous hearing on 4 February, the prince’s lawyer, Anne-Sophie Nardon, stressed that the painting had been sequestered since 2016 and that the investigation into it closed in 2018; the prosecutor also approved the restitution.

The painting is one of several once owned by the Italian-based French collector Giuliano Ruffini, who is at the centre of an international forgery scandal. The Louvre, National Gallery in London, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Galleria Nazionale in Parma and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum were embroiled in the saga, having between them authenticated and borrowed paintings that were sold by Ruffini and later attributed to Orazio Gentileschi, Parmigianino and Frans Hals.

The latest judgment is a setback for judge Buresi, who launched the investigation into the fakes scandal and had previously refused the prince’s request to have the panel returned. Six years after the start of her investigation, she is still seeking the arrest of the two main suspects in the forgery scandal, who live near Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. The court of Bologna refused to apprehend the local painter Lino Frongia, who is suspected of being the painting's forger. The supreme court in Rome, however, validated the arrest warrant for Guiliano Ruffini, who is considered by the investigators to be the mastermind behind a huge trafficking ring of forgeries. Ruffini denies these allegations. But his arrest and transfer to Paris have been suspended due to an ongoing Italian investigation for fiscal fraud.

From the start, Venus with a Veil was at the core of the criminal investigation. The seizure of the work during an exhibition of the Liechtenstein collection in the south of France was considered an affront by the prince, who has since refused to lend any further works to French institutions. Adding insult to injury, a 213-page scientific study reported that pigments were not consistent with Cranach’s workshop: the signature was not by the artist, and the painting presented a cracking network consistent with other signs showing that the panel had been warmed to create “artificial ageing”.

The report concluded that “the most probable hypothesis is that the work was executed in the manner of Cranach the Elder, by imitating his compositions, his palette, his touch and his time period”. Other scholars and art historians have also since conceded that the work was without doubt a forgery.

However, the Prince’s curator, Johann Kräftner, who bought the painting for €7m in 2013 from the art dealer Konrad Bernheimer, challenges these findings and maintains that the discovery of this new Cranach is legitimate and the crown jewel of the 700-strong collection held in the Liechtenstein Palace in Vienna.

Bernheimer and Kräftner had traced the painting's provenance to a Belgian family who had owned it since the mid-19th century. But, The Art Newspaper revealed that the previous owner was in fact Giuliano Ruffini. Claiming he had bought it from the daughter of an entrepreneur in Paris in 1973, he presented an “invoice” including six other paintings, some of which were also declared copies or fakes. None of the paintings bore a price tag, but Ruffini now explains that they were actually gift.

When Ruffini discovered in The Art Newspaper that the Prince had paid €7m for the work, he launched a lawsuit in Paris against two middlemen, accusing them of having swindled him. That case is ongoing.

• For more on the Old Master forgery scandal, listen to our podcast