Spanish tax office finds missing ‘Van Gogh’

A valuable painting believed to be by the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh may have been discovered by tax inspectors in Spain 40 years after it was reported missing, the country's tax office said on Saturday. But experts in Austria have cast doubt on the find.

Spanish tax office finds missing 'Van Gogh'
A detail of Vincent Van Gogh's Cornfield with Cypress Trees, painted in 1889, or the same year as the paining found by Spain's Tax Office. Photo: Wikimedia

Cypress, Sky and Country went missing from  Vienna's Art History Museum around 40 years ago, Spain's El Mundo newspaper reported.

Art experts have told Spain's Tax Office the work painted in 1889 and measuring 35 by 32 centimeters 13.7 by 12.5 inches is probably genuine, citing the evidence of three seals as proof. One of those is from Holland's Rijksmuseum museum, and is dated to 1944, or during Nazi occupation of the country.

The authenticity of the painting is now to be verified by the country's ministry of culture.

But an Austrian art expert has thrown on the origins of the painting.

Dr. Friedrich Polleroß, head of the archives of the Art History Institute of Vienna University told The Local Austria the university had no records of seeing such a painting in the Art History Museum.

The museum also denied knowledge of ever having had such a painting in its collection. 

An additional red flag is that Vienna University already received an inquiry about this painting from the Criminal Police of Berlin in November 2013.

The painting in question was discovered during an investigation into tax fraud worth €319 million ($439 million), Spanish tax authorities said. The painting turned up during a search through 542 safety deposit boxes in 270 bank branches.

The search also turned up 15 bullfighting costumes, jewellery and €2 million in cash, which has now gone into tax office coffers.

The investigation is part of the Spanish tax office's ongoing attempts to boost tax collection during the country's economic crisis.  Recently, it was reported the agency was selling off seized goods including bras, sunglasses and children's pencil cases.

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Spanish billionaire banking boss sees jail term doubled over smuggled Picasso

A Spanish court on Tuesday doubled the jail term handed to a former top banker for smuggling a 26-million-euro Picasso painting out of the country onboard a yacht.

Spanish billionaire banking boss sees jail term doubled over smuggled Picasso
Head of a Young Woman by Pablo Picasso Photo: AFP

Former Bankinter boss Jaime Botin, who is 83, was found guilty last month with a Madrid court sentencing him to 18 months in prison and a 52.4-million-euro fine ($58.4 million).

But in a rare turnaround two weeks later, the judge raised the sentence to three years and a 91.7-million-euro fine following what she said was an “error in the imposition of the penalty”, court documents released on Tuesday showed.   

Under the initial ruling, Botin — who also served as a top executive at Santander Bank — had not been expected to spend time behind bars as first-time offenders are usually spared jail for sentences of under two years if convicted of a non-violent crime.   

It was not immediately clear whether Botin would now be jailed, given his advanced age.

Entitled “Head of a Young Girl”, the work was painted by Picasso in Catalonia in 1906 during his pre-Cubist phase. It was purchased by Botin in London in 1977 and brought back to Spain.

Since 2012, Botin, whose family are founder members of the Santander banking group, had been trying to obtain authorisation to export the painting in order to auction it at Christie's in London.

However, the culture ministry refused on grounds there was “no similar work on Spanish territory” from the same period in Picasso's life, with its decision confirmed by Spain's National Court in May 2015, which declared it “unexportable” due to its “cultural interest”.

But barely three months later, the painting was found by French customs officers on board a yacht docked at a harbour on the island of Corsica, who found documents attesting to its value and seized it, saying it had been packaged up to be sent to Switzerland.

They also found documentation stating the painting was not to leave Spain.    

At the time, Botin's lawyers said he was transporting it for storage in a vault in Geneva but the court found him guilty of “smuggling cultural goods” for removing the painting “from national territory without a permit”.

Botin's lawyers had argued against the export ban, noting the painting was acquired in Britain and was on board a British-flagged vessel when seized.    

The painting, whose ownership has now been transferred to the Spanish state, is currently stored at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, which houses Picasso's large anti-war masterpiece “Guernica”.

READ MORE: Spanish banker gets jail term for trying to smuggle Picasso masterpiece out of Spain on yacht