The Department of Justice in Washington has ordered restraint on the 1909 Pablo Picasso painting “Compotier et tasse” – estimated to be worth $11.5 million – on behalf of the Italian government. This action follows an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
The restraining order was obtained in response to an official request by the government of Italy, pursuant to the Treaty between the United States and the Italian Republic on Mutual Legal Assistance in criminal matters for assistance in connection with its ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution of Gabriella Amati. Amati and her late husband, Angelo Maj, were charged by the Italian Public Prosecutors’ Office in Milan with embezzlement and fraudulent bankruptcy offenses under Italian law, and Italian prosecutors have obtained a restraining order for the Picasso painting in connection with the criminal proceeding.
According to documents filed in the Italian criminal proceeding, Amati and Maj, in collaboration with a public official of the City of Naples, Italy, employed various schemes to misappropriate tax receipts collected for Naples by companies the couple controlled. In addition, the Italian prosecutors alleged that Amati and Maj orchestrated a number of schemes to embezzle Naples’ tax revenue including the use of fraudulent service contracts, forged accounting records, inflated operational expenses, and fraudulently claimed refunds to Naples taxpayers, all to justify transfers to the couple’s own bank accounts of the taxes that were collected for the city, resulting in a loss of approximately 33 million euros ($44 million) to Naples.
On May 21, HSI special agents in New York located and recovered the painting, which was being offered for private sale in the amount of $11.5 million.
An application to enforce the Italian restraining order was filed June 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking to restrain the Picasso painting belonging to Amati and Maj and located in New York City. U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska granted the U.S. government’s application and issued a restraining order prohibiting the removal, sale or disposition of the Picasso painting from the court’s jurisdiction. The United States is working in close cooperation with the Italian Public Prosecutors’ Office in Milan, the Justice Department’s Attaché in Rome and HSI Attaché Rome to forfeit the painting in an effort to repatriate the Picasso to Italy.
“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. “We are very pleased that our investigation has led to the recovery of this painting that is so significant to the Italian people. This is an example of the fine work of our HSI cultural repatriation special agents. We will continue our efforts to return stolen antiquities to their rightful owners.”
“Restraining this Picasso painting is yet another example of the Justice Department’s close partnership with law enforcement around the world,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman. “Our asset forfeiture section is committed to finding and securing every last penny of criminal proceeds and putting those ill-gotten proceeds back in the hands of victims, regardless of where they reside.”
“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,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. “Our commitment to ‘taking the profit out of crime’ transcends national boundaries and is the operating principle of our asset forfeiture program.”
The U.S. enforcement of the Italian order is being handled by Assistant Deputy Chief Jack de Kluiver and Trial Attorney Jennifer Wallis of the Justice Department Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and Asset Forfeiture Unit Chief Sharon Cohen Levin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Magdo of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, HSI New York, HSI Rome and the Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs.
In Italy, the case is being handled by the Italian Public Prosecutor’s Office in Milan and investigated by the Guardia di Finanza police service.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 75 attaché offices in 48 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
HSI’s specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Since 2007, more than 7,150 artifacts have been 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.