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Italy to compensate Swiss art dealer

Beyeler bought the Van Gogh painting in 1977 before arranging to sell it to the Guggenheim in 1988

(Keystone Archive)

Italy must pay Swiss art dealer, Ernst Beyeler, €1.3 million (SFr1.9 million) in compensation for seizing a controversial Van Gogh painting in 1988.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that while Italy had a right to seize Van Gogh's "The Gardener", its payment - which represented a fraction of the painting's market value - had caused a loss to Beyeler.

The controversy, which involves one of Switzerland's best-known art figures, dates back to 1977 when Beyeler bought the painting for the equivalent of SFr453,000.

In 1988, Beyeler sold the painting for $8.5 million to the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, prompting Italy's Cultural Heritage Ministry to invoke its first bidder's right - a legal right to buy an art treasure that might otherwise be exported.

The ministry took possession of the work and paid Beyeler the painting's 1977 purchase price - 27 times lower than the price negotiated with the Guggenheim.

Beyeler asked the court in 1996 to order Italy to return the painting and pay $13.4 million to match the Guggenheim price, plus interest.

Artwork stays in Italy

However, the Strasbourg-based court said in a statement that Italy did not have to return the artwork to the Basel-based Beyeler.

It said Italy had not been wrong in exercising its first bidder's right, but that its payment had been inadequate.

Along with the compensation, the court awarded Beyeler SFr80,410 in costs.

The Van Gogh portrait - which shows a young bearded man in a black hat in southern France in 1889 - now hangs in Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art.

Born in Basel in 1921, Beyeler has created one of Switzerland's most famous art dealerships after taking over an antiquarian book and print shop after the Second World War.

A collection of major works gathered by Beyeler has been on public display since 1997 at the Fondation Beyeler, on the outskirts of Basel.

swissinfo with agencies

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