1934NE05A.jpg
At the eye of the storm, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), correspondent of Popes and Michelangelo, whose archive is being fought over by the state authorities and the heirs of the original owner.

You have 2 more free articles remaining

But with an auction estimate of 2.5m euros set against a supposedly agreed private sale at 150m euros, a drama which has already involved a deathbed marriage, a band of shadowy Russians, a mysterious death and a string of court cases, may finally be reaching its denouement.

The story begins in 1540, when Vasari bought a house in Arezzo where he subsequently wrote his famous 'Lives'. When he died in 1574, the house and contents were bequeathed to his heirs. When the family died out, the house passed first to a lay fraternity and then to Luciano Spinelli, who sold the house, but not the contents, to the Italian state. These contents included the archive at the centre of the present dispute.

On his deathbed, the childless Conte Spinelli had married his maid, Flora Romano, and when she died in 1985, her nephew, one Giovanni Festari, moved heaven and earth to get title to the archive, even though Spinelli had arranged for it to be on permanent loan to the Arezzo municipality.

In 2006 the papers were seized and an auction planned to settle an unpaid debt of 400,000 euros to a local bank. The archive was then valued at 1.1m euros, but only a few months later the value had been increased to 2.5m euros. At this point Festari paid the debt and the sale was cancelled.

Having been cheated of the opportunity to buy it at auction, the Italian state proceeded to 'notify' the archive, ruling that, while the papers belonged to Festari, they could not be removed from the Vasari house. The state was also to have first refusal in the case of a sale, but this did not stop Festari seeking a buyer for an archive whose valuation had by then leaped to 70m euros. Yale University, which already has a collection of Vasari papers, was rumoured as a possible buyer.

Nothing came of it until last year, when the superintendent responsible for keeping an eye on the archive received a letter from Festari, dated September 9, declaring an agreed sale to Russia for a staggering 150m euros.

Why Ross Engineering, a Russian construction group that builds shopping centres, should be interested in buying a Renaissance archive at perhaps ten times its market value, is a mystery. A mystery that deepens when it emerges that the actual buyer, Vassily Stepanov, was supposedly acting as front man for a 'dear friend' who wanted to 'buy something big in Italy', and who suddenly died in a car crash on September 9 (the very date on the sale contract).

An examination of the records showed no oligarchs dying in Russia on that day and it subsequently transpired that Stepanov was, indeed, the putative buyer. A month later, Festari himself died. With all the public attention Stepanov backed off, but later restated his intention to buy.

So what lies at the centre of this extraordinary story? The archive comprises 31 documents pertinent to Vasari and his family, as well as letters from various notables of his time. The later include correspondence from Popes, from Amerigo Vespucci and, most notably, 17 letters from Michelangelo, one of which includes a plan of the Tempio della Pace in Rome.

It is a very important archive, but is it worth 150m euros? Was the supposed Russian deal merely Festari's way of forcing the Italian state's hand and making it pay more for his papers? Or was the exorbitant sum offered on the understanding that the archive would magically become exportable? If such is the case, as the mayor of Arezzo stated: "Someone in this group must have powerful friends."

Doubtless it is a coincidence that the directors of the Ross Group are, for the most part, former Soviet army officers, and that the sale was agreed during the days when Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was visiting Putin, but rats are being smelled on all sides and several investigations have been launched.

Be that as it may, events took yet another turn on November 11 last year, with a new seizure of the archive by the tax authorities for an unpaid tax bill of 700,000 euros. Coincidence? The satisfaction of the cultural authorities was palpable when it was decided to sell the archive at auction on March 9 at a starting price of 2.5m euros.

The room was already packed with representatives of the tax authorities, the superintendent and a representative from the Culture Ministry. They were poised to finally buy the archive for the state, when the lawyer for Festari's four sons and heirs pulled a rabbit out of his hat (as he put it) and succeeded in obtaining a court order on March 9 halting the sale on a technicality.

There were long faces from the authorities, but jubilation from the Festaris, who claimed they now had the wherewithal to pay the tax bill.

Convinced that the tax authorities were conniving with the Culture Ministry and that they were victims of state interference, the Festari brothers responded to the legal broadside with one of their own, suing various organs of the state on different counts.

They claimed that in confirming their father's title to the papers, the court of appeal implicitly gave the family the right to administer them. Secondly, they said the archive should be in the family's hands because the state had done nothing to safeguard and promote it.

But the latest and perhaps decisive chapter of the saga took place back in court at Arezzo on March 19 where, with unexpected swiftness, a judge swept aside the Festari brothers' arguments.

Not only had they failed to pay their debt to the taxman, they had not even shown willingness to do so, the judge ruled, implying that the Russian offer of 150m euros for the archive was considered "improbable". Had it been real, there would have been a "justification for an advance on the price offered to cover the debt, amounting to less than one fifteenth of the sum supposedly offered by Ross Engineering". At the very least, the contract could have been used as security for a bank loan.

The judge also dismissed a request that the Ministry for Culture be barred from being represented at the posited auction on the basis that this would deter other buyers fearful that the ministry would use its right of pre-emption.

The inference is now clear: "Put up or shut up".

The auction should now go ahead on April 30 with a reserve of 2.6m euros on the archive. But with the Festari lawyer off to Moscow to meet Stepanov, who would bet against a final coup de théâtre?

By Lucian Comoy