The Italian Almanac

Giorgio Vasari

Seized Papers

The writings and letters of Renaissance-era art historian Giorgio Vasari were seized by police in the latest twist in a long and tangled story of an aristocratic family's fight to sell them. The heirs of the late Count Giovanni Festari have been trying to offload the precious collection of letters since last fall when news that an unnamed Russian gas magnate was willing to put up 150 million euros for them horrified art lovers around the world.

Rumoured by sceptics to be a ploy to force the government to make a hefty counter offer, the deal was thought to have fallen through. But a lawyer representing the Festaris, Guido Cosulich, said Friday that the sale, through Russian holding company Ross Engineering had indeed gone through and that the government had until Monday to beat their offer. He said the papers' seizure was "just a desperate attempt to buy time. The papers are practically sold". In addition to an assortment of Vasari's own notes, the Vasari papers contain letters from figures like Michelangelo, 16th-century Tuscan potentate Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, and a number of popes.

Ownership of the archive has been an item of contention since November, when an Italian collection agency seized them and put them up for auction to pay for around 800,000 euros in tax debts left over by the Festari estate. Count Festari allegedly arranged for their sale just before his death last summer, but neither he nor his Russian buyer would live to see it go through.

Festari died in July and the magnate two months later, just weeks before he was scheduled to sign off on the deal, according to a Russian lawyer who claims to have represented him. Arezzo authorities, meanwhile, asked the culture ministry to intervene after lawyers told them the state had six months to match them offer before the sale went through. But culture officials were unconvinced that the offer was legitimate and asked Rome prosecutors to investigate.

The Vasari papers are in any case bound to his historic home in Arezzo by a culture ministry statute that makes their ownership largely symbolic. They cannot leave the Tuscan hilltop town. Cusolich claimed the supposed Russian buyer understood the papers couldn't be moved but wanted to buy them anyway. Regardless, subsequent reports that the deal had fallen through fuelled speculation that the 'Russian bid' was merely a ruse to lure the government into making a competing bid far in excess of what the papers were actually worth.