The picture, about 3ft by 2ft, shows a red-robed Madonna holding the infant Jesus as he feeds hay to a lamb. Also known as the 'Madonna with the Hay', it was painted in oils on wood by Raphael in Florence in about 1506. It has been described by a German expert as 'one of the most remarkable works by the great painter from Urbino'.
The painting is not listed in any catalogue of Raphael's works. It has never been displayed in a museum and its existence was known to only a few scholars. The last known owners were the family of Giacomo Leopardi, the poet, who hung it in their villa at Recanati near Ancona around the end of the last century.
It was presumed to have been sold and all trace was lost until about six months ago. Carabinieri in Vicenza, northern Italy, were tipped-off that it had been offered to Roman art dealers.
The carabinieri are reticent about what happened next. 'We cannot say very much. This is part of a much larger investigation,' Lieutenant-Colonel Giovanni Antolini, carabinieri commander, told the Independent.
His force learnt the painting was in the vaults of a Swiss bank, owned by an organisation - 'not the Mafia' - which was interested in selling.
Using a front of private citizens - traders and a private detective - acting on their behalf, the carabinieri arranged a deal under which the owners would supposedly be paid 40bn lire. It was stipulated that the painting must be handed over in Italy. That sum is, in fact, far less than the painting's value on the legal art market, which, Lt-Col Antolini said, he 'could not even begin to guess at'. The owners probably feared to sell it legally because the Italian state could have exercised its right to pre-empt the sale of such an important work.
During the past week the picture was smuggled over the border into Italy in a van with false papers declaring it to be a work of an artist of the 'Umbrian school', worth a mere 8m lire ( pounds 3,200). It was placed in a Milan bank ready for the final transaction. There, the carabinieri sprang the trap, seized the painting and reported five people - businessmen and art dealers - to the magistrates for smuggling and producing false documents.
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