The bullet points — an $11.5 million Picasso painting seized by the U.S. government, an Italian couple accused of massive embezzlement, a story spanning from Naples to New York — seem more “The Thomas Crown Affair” than Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But that’s just what happened.
The Justice Department announced Monday it had recently seized a 1909 Pablo Picasso painting, “Compotier et tasse,” from an Italian woman accused of manipulating the city of Naples entire tax system to embezzle $44 million from taxpayers. Gabriella Amati was trying to sell the painting privately in New York City in May when ICE seized the painting. Amati and and her late husband, Angelo Maj, had been charged by the Italian Public Prosecutors’ Office in Milan with embezzlement and fraudulent bankruptcy offenses.
The Homeland Security Investigations Office of International Affairs has 75 attaché offices in 48 countries and works to track down and return stolen, lost or illegally trafficked cultural artifacts. Since 2007, the office has seized and returned 7,150 artifacts — everything from modern paintings to 15th century manuscripts — to 26 different countries.
The HSI attaché office in Rome will work with Italian authorities in Milan to get the Picasso back into Italian hands.
“This is an example of the fine work of our HSI cultural repatriation special agents,” ICE Director John Morton said in a statement. “We will continue our efforts to return stolen antiquities to their rightful owners.”
For a country to reclaim its cultural antiques, it must submit an application to the appropriate U.S. District Court. In the case of “Compotier et tasse” — a cubist take in shades of grey and brown on “fruit bowl and cup,” the painting’s literal translation from French — Italy on Friday submitted an application, which was quickly approved.
“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 in a statement. “Our commitment to ‘taking the profit out of crime’ transcends national boundaries and is the operating principle of our asset forfeiture program.”