Shortly after it acquired the Bertolini collection, Milan’s Museo del Novecento described the works as “one of the most important donations in the history of [the city’s] museums”. Now, the municipality of Milan, which runs the museum, is fighting demands that it annuls the donation agreement and return the 600 pieces of Modern art. The request was made by the lone heir of the collection’s former owner, in the first hearing of a trial that opened in a Brescia court in January. While the heir argued the municipality had failed to honour a contractual obligation, and that the original donation agreement contains defects of form, the municipality said the plaintiff’s justifications are “inadmissible and unfounded”.
During his lifetime, Mario Bertolini, a dentist and avid collector from Breno in Lombardy, acquired works by a number of artists active from the 1960s to the 1990s, including Mario Schifano’s Gente che cammina (1964), an iconic Richard Hamilton photo etching of La Scala (1968), and pieces by Andy Warhol, Georg Baselitz, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Anselm Kiefer. Bertolini donated the entire collection to the municipality in 2014, with both parties agreeing that around 15% of the works would remain in the donor’s home for his personal enjoyment. The Bertolini works now form a cornerstone of the museum’s 4,000-strong collection of 20th-century Italian art.
The museum displayed 120 Bertolini works in a dedicated exhibition that ran from May to November 2015. As anticipated in the donation agreement, Bertolini lent a small number of the works that had remained in his possession for the exhibition, on the understanding that they would later be returned. Before the redelivery had been arranged, however, Bertolini renounced his possession of the works and transferred those still on display in his home to the museum in May 2016. After his health declined, Bertolini was placed under guardianship in October 2017. He died three years later.
Details of the first court hearing are outlined in a municipality report signed by Giuseppe Sala, mayor of Milan, on 14 January. According to the document, Bertolini’s heir, who is referred to simply as E.B., claims the municipality failed to honour the agreement to reserve part of the collection for Bertolini’s enjoyment. Furthermore, E.B. claims the municipality did not observe correct procedures when signing the deeds, meaning the agreement is invalid.
Agreement in dispute
But the municipality claims the deeds were signed “correctly and according to ordinary administrative practice”, and that Bertoloni had access to part of the collection, given that a number of works remained on display at his home before he renounced possession of them. The defendant also contests an apparent insinuation by E.B. that the donor was of unsound mind when he signed the agreement, arguing that the donor’s health deteriorated after the agreement was finalised.
A second court hearing is scheduled for March, but a final ruling is not expected for “months or years”, Stefania Pagano, the lawyer who is representing the defendant, tells The Art Newspaper. A spokesperson for the municipality’s culture department says that private donations—such as those made by Riccardo Jucker, Gian Ferrari and Bertolini—form the backbone of the Novecento collection. The privately owned Mattioli collection will be displayed from October on a free, five-year renewable loan. It will transform the Novecento into the world’s most important centre for Futurist art, the museum’s management has claimed.