Italian authorities have blocked the sale of a prized 17th-century painting by Artemisia Gentileschi at auction in Austria, alleging it was illegally exported by its owners. 

The Carabinieri TPC, Italy’s cultural heritage protection agency, said that the painting’s owners allegedly obtained export permission three years ago by describing the piece as the work of a follower of Gentileschi, rather than the artist herself. 

The painting, called Caritas Romana (Roman Charity), depicts the ancient Roman myth of Pero, who surreptitiously breastfed her jailed father after he was sentenced to death by starvation. It was commissioned by the Pugliese count Giangirolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona in the mid-17th century.

TPC authorities tracked down the piece at the Vienna auction house Dorotheum and subsequently seized it. The artwork has since been returned to Bari, the southern Italian city where experts believe it was created by Gentileschi some 400 years ago. 

“The painting in question was legally exported from Italy in 2019…as ‘attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi and/or Onofrio Palumbo, formerly attributed to Massimo Stanzione,’ a representative from Dorotheum told Artnet News. “This export license was subsequently revoked in 2020. The owners, who inherited the painting, have since been in an open legal dispute with the export authority over the revocation of this export permit from Italy.”

“The painting was neither offered in an auction nor in a private treaty,” the spokesperson said.

Members of the Carabinieri TPC detailed the case to local reporters in Bari this week, explaining that they’ve followed the artwork’s status since 2020. A criminal investigation into the owners of the piece is now underway, they added. 

Giovanni Di Bella, the head of the Carabinieri TPC’s Bari-based unit, said in an email that the fate of Caritas Romana hinges on the outcome of that probe. If the artwork’s owners are found to have acted illegally, the piece could be confiscated by the state and eventually transferred to a local museum. If the owners are found innocent, they will retain ownership of the painting—though they will not be allowed to transport it across country lines. 

“The recovery of the painting was our goal,” Di Bella explained, noting that the artwork remains in good condition and is being held at the office of cultural heritage in Bari.

Experts estimate the artwork to be worth at least €2 million ($2 million a figure that roughly squares with the Baroque painter’s recent auction results. Since 2017, seven of the artist’s pieces have topped the $2 million mark, according to the Artnet Price Database. That includes her three-quarter length Portrait of a Lady, which sold for $2.6 million at Sotheby’s New York in January of this year.

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