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Odyssean Adventure of Missing Works of Art
by Albert Kos

Wars and the geopolitical changes that sometimes follow them leave behind unhealed wounds on the affected areas, not only among the people and in their environment but also in the destroyed, impoverished, or in any other way degraded cultural and artistic heritage. There are numerous stories about stolen, seized, mysteriously disappeared, or unjustly confiscated works of art in Europe and elsewhere in the world, and quite a few have to wait a very long time to be solved.

One such story that has recently intrigued cultural, and partly also political, circles in Italy and Slovenia regards the question of returning several tens of masterpieces from the area of the Slovenian coastal cities of Koper, Izola, and Piran, now being in the possession of the Italian government or more precisely of the municipality of Trieste, as a result of historical coincidences and circumstances.

In 1940, the then Italian authorities removed from the above area, which belonged to Italy in the period between the two world wars, all major works of art from churches, convents, and museums to protect them against the risk of war, since they were supposed to be endangered by potential military conflicts. Since then, any trace of these works of art (totalling about 80) has disappeared, and to all the requests to return them, submitted initially by the Yugoslavian and then (after 1991) the Slovenian authorities, Italy replied that their whereabouts were unknown.

Works of Art Found in Rome
The riddle surrounding their fate was resolved in 2002, when at the initiative of, and thanks to, the reputable Italian art historian (and then state secretary at the Italian Ministry of Culture) Vittorio Sgarbi, the paintings removed in 1940 from Koper and Piran were 'found' in the basements of the Venezia Palace in Rome, where, stored in crates and without proper protection, they gradually decayed. At Sgarbi's initiative, they were evaluated for the first time, catalogued, and also presented to the public in the state in which they had been found.

At a press conference that was announced under the title A Treasure - Artworks from Istria - Found, held on 15 May 2002 at the Venezia Palace in Rome, those participating were the first who could see again, after more than 60 years, the extraordinary masterpieces of the Venetian school of the 15th and 16th centuries, by artists including Paolo Veneziano, Alvise Vivarini, Vittore Carpaccio, Gianbattista Tiepolo, the school of Giovanni Bellini, and many other protagonists of the Venetian Renaissance.

This display of a smaller yet artistically the most important part of the 'rediscovered treasure' resulted in an automatic resolution for Slovenia with regard to the question of returning the rediscovered paintings, sculptures, and art objects to Slovenia, to their original sites, and to their legitimate owners. The official Italian representatives, however, Sgarbi included, avoided the question of their return or even directly rejected the justification of any such requests.

Where Will the Treasures from Slovenian Istria End up?
After two-and-a-half years of silence and negative politicising in Italy, particularly in Trieste, on the question of whom the stolen paintings belong to, Sgarbi, at a press conference held in mid-December last year at the Trieste Revoltella Museum, presented 21 canvases (restored in the meantime), which are to be displayed to the public for six months from April of this year and later obtain a permanent place in the Trieste National Gallery or in the famous Miramare Castle near Trieste, claimed that they were the property of the Italian state as they had been created by Italian artists and that the state of Italy had protected them against destruction.

Slovenia and especially the legitimate owners of these works of art firmly oppose such intentions, based on rather politicised arguments, which try to justify the controversial 'confiscation' of cultural heritage, and the Slovenian side insists that they should be returned to the churches, convents, and museums in Koper and Piran where these masterpieces undoubtedly belong. This is ultimately confirmed by the preserved receipts, issued in 1940 by the then Italian authorities to the owners of the confiscated works of art, which provide undeniable evidence of the temporary nature of their removal to safety at that time.

Slovenian diplomats, with the support of art historians and monument protection experts, remain firm in their efforts to have the canvasses returned as soon as possible to the places and sites where they belong according to their origin and heritage and believe this goal should be achieved.

Capodistria Benedetto Carpaccio: Madonna col Bambino tra SS Bartolomeo e Tommaso (Mary with Child between St. Bartholome and St. Thomas) (1538) - removed from Museum of Koper-Capodistria.

Article abstracted from Sinfo.