Sale of £7.5m Picasso blocked by US as painting's owners charged with fraud and embezzlement

Compotier et tasse, a cubist painting from 1909, had been offered for private sale in New York
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The US today blocked the sale of a £7.5 million Picasso painting at the request of Italian authorities, who have charged the painting’s owners with fraud and embezzlement.

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Compotier et tasse or "Fruit bowl and cup", a cubist painting from 1909, had been offered for private sale in New York.

But when Italian authorities learnt of the imminent sale they urged the US government to step in, and this morning the Department of Justice seized the work, which has an estimated sale price of $11.5 million.

The painting’s owner, Gabriella Amati and her late husband, Angelo Maj, are accused by the Public Prosecutors’ Office in Milan with bankruptcy offences  and of embezzling tax revenues from the southern Italian city of Naples.

According to prosecutors, Amati and Maj, with the help of a corrupt Naples official, used a series of scams, including misappropriated tax receipts, fraudulent service contracts and faked expenses, to diddle the city out of €33 million.

Agents working for US Immigration and Customs (Ice) located and recovered the painting in New York, where it was being offered for sale on 21 May.

The Justice department today assumed control of the painting after New York City’s District Judge Loretta Preska signed a restraining order following the Italian Government’s formal request for it to be held. The order prohibits the removal, sale or disposition of the Picasso painting from the court’s jurisdiction.

"We are pleased to have played a role in securing this valuable work of art by the celebrated artist, Pablo Picasso, on behalf of the Italian government," Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, told ArtDaily website.

"Restraining this valuable artwork is an effort to help recover some of the estimated $44 million that this couple stole from the tax-paying citizens of Naples," said Ice Director John Morton.

Since 2007, Ice investigations have enabled more than 7,150 artifacts to be returned to 26 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.