The bust of Pope Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year has left a trail of criminal investigations and fired civil servants in its wake. When the museum announced the rediscovery and acquisition of the long-lost sculpture this June, the only details released about the purchase where that it belonged to an unnamed private collector who arranged a private sale via Sotheby’s London. The last time before then that it appeared on the historical record was when it was sold to a Viennese collector at an 1893 Borghese family estate sale.
Last month, details started to leak about the acquisition. The Getty was reported to have paid a jaw-dropping $33 million to buy the bust from a still-unnamed Slovakian art dealer who had bought it unattributed and then found out it was the real thing, not a copy after Bernini’s original. Somehow, the work had migrated from Vienna at the end of the 19th century to modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia. where it was in the collection of Slovakian painter Ernest Zmeták. In 2013, Zmeták’s heirs put some of this collection, including the bust of Pope Paul V, up for auction.
The bust, then attributed solely to an “unknown Italian sculptor,” was put up for auction twice, once in December of 2013 for 47,000 euro, and when it failed to sell, again almost a year later for 24,000 euro. Shortly after the bust couldn’t find a buyer even at the 50% off fire sale, the auction house sold the bust privately for the reserve price of 24,000 euro to one Clément Guenebeaud, a French collector living in Bratislava.
It was Guenebeaud who realized the bust was made by Bernini himself. He tried to sell it on his own but the large hole in its ownership history made potential buyers wary. A famous work of art that mysteriously traveled from Vienna to Slovakia over the course of the 20th century runs the risk of being Nazi loot which could mire the current owner in a messy and expensive restitution battle. Sotheby’s was game, though, and through them Guenebeaud was able to sell the bust to the Getty. The Baroque masterpiece left Slovakia without incident.
After the Getty announced their new treasure with a splash, the fact that a small country with limited resources that could really use a tourism boost had somehow let a 17th century bust by one of the greatest sculptors in the world slip through its fingers did not go unnoticed back in Bratislava. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič ordered an investigation into the bust debacle and filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender involved in the sale on suspicion that someone involved in the appraisal and sale knew its true value but deliberately and fraudulently obscured it.
As of now, there is no evidence of deliberate deception. The auction house in Bratislava is a local outfit without the depth of expertise necessary to confidently attribute a sculpture to Bernini. Ernest Zmeták apparently had no idea the bust was original, nor did his heirs. The only person who had any idea, Guenebeaud, didn’t hide the fact that he thought it was a genuine Bernini in his application for an export license. He wrote that it was probably by Bernini and estimated its value at around €7 million, but the ministry employee in charge or arranging the permits changed the description from “bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini” to “bust after Bernini.” Apparently she decided to go with the auction house’s assessment rather than Guenebeaud’s, and the commission that reviews permanent export applications accepted it without ordering an expert examination to confirm or deny the disputed authorship. Minister Maďarič fired her and the director of the department in charge of issuing export permits.
The timeline of all these events is foggy. It’s not clear who determined the bust was original. It could be Alexander Kader, head of the department of European sculpture at Sotheby’s London, but usually the top experts in the field are consulted for works of this importance. Presumably the Getty wouldn’t have shelled out $33 million without being satisfied the bust was by Bernini.
If the special commission tasked with investigating irregularities in the export license find it to have been granted improperly, it’s possible the license will be revoked and the Slovakian government will request that the Getty return the bust. The museum does not seem concerned.
In an email to artnet News Ron Hartwig, the Getty Museum’s vice-president of communications assured that the bust “will remain on view to the public at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”
He explained “The Bust of Pope Paul V (1621) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was legally exported from Slovakia, legally sold in the United Kingdom and legally imported into the United States. Whatever the nature of the Slovakian government’s inquiry, it has no impact whatsoever on the Getty’s ownership of the bust.”