A smuggled Picasso finally exhibited in Madrid

‘Bust of a young woman’, worth 26 million euros, now hangs in the Reina Sofía art museum, after being seized from a sailboat in Corsica

The controversial case of the portrait of Picasso’s lover is finally coming to an end. The Malaga artist painted Fernande Olivier during his stay in the Spanish town of Gósol in 1906. Head of a Young Woman is a unique work that played an important role in the artistic transition to Cubism.

The painting had been privately owned since its creation, but in 2012 it was the subject of a tumultuous legal battle that spanned several years after its owner, banker Jaime Botín, gave Christie’s permission to sell it at auction in London. This sparked a legal battle with the Spanish Ministry of Culture who did not want the painting to leave Spain, culminating in its illegal departure from the country on a sailboat. It was seized by the Guardia Civil and French customs services in Corsica in July 2015.

After being stored for almost seven years in the Reina Sofía art museum in Madrid, the controversial painting was hung last week in the second-floor gallery, close to Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica. It is the newest addition to the museum’s famous permanent collection.

It was one of the art-collecting world’s most controversial sagas of recent years, with all the ingredients to inspire an art-smuggling thriller: a legal battle, a boat escape, a police intervention, a second return to court and millions of euros in fines.

Beginnings

Originally owned by a French art dealer, Paul Guillaume, the painting arrived in Spain in 1977 when the Marlborough Gallery in London sold it to Jaime Botín, chairman of Bankinter and brother of Emilio Botín, former executive chairman of Santander bank. The painting remained in Spain for more than 30 years, until Botín decided to auction it off in 2012.

The war that this decision sparked is not surprising; in addition to its significant artistic value, the painting was valued at 26.2 million euros.

It was then that the Ministry of Culture intervened and declared that the painting was a “national treasure” and should not be exported, since it “does not resemble any existing work of art in Spain”.

However, the ministry was ignored and Head of a Young Woman was packed and shipped on Jaime Botín’s Adiz sailboat in the summer of 2015. The banker was not on board when the ship was later inspected by authorities, although his son Alfonso was.

Once seized in Corsica, the painting was taken to the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid, where it remained for the last seven years of the dispute.

Botín, then 85 years old, was sentenced in 2020 to three years in prison and a fine of 91.7 million euros (more than four times the value of the painting he intended to sell), for the crime of smuggling of cultural property.

A fine of several million euros

He paid the fine in hopes of avoiding going to jail, which he eventually got due to health issues.

In a statement given to SUR last Thursday, Jaime Botín explained that his intention “was never to sell the painting or evade the law”. He also said he considered his sentence to be “strict” and “disproportionate”.

In November last year, just as the judge was suspending Botín’s prison sentence, the ministry accepted the painting as part of the permanent collection of the Reina Sofía, where it now hangs.

After its long journey, Head of a Young Woman is set to be one of the main attractions of the upcoming Picasso 1906 exhibition, which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Malaga artist’s death.

Thirty years ago, the capital of Andalusia had the honor of hosting the Universal Exhibition. However, just two months before the inauguration, on February 18, one of the site’s key buildings caught fire.

The theme of the Expo in Seville was The Age of Discovery, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas.

Isla de la Cartuja (an island in the Guadalquivir River) was chosen to host pavilions where more than 100 countries were represented. In addition to the Royal Pavilion, there were five themed buildings, the star of which was the Pabellón de los Descubrimientos (Pavilion of Discoveries).

Designed by architects Javier Feduchi and Alfredo Lozano, the building was already finished. The parallelepipedic construction with a rectangular base (126 meters by 66), was divided into eight square modules. On this fateful Tuesday, February 18, it still had to refine its interior and the Copernican armillary sphere, one of the highlights of the building, was being painted.

A fire broke out shortly before 2 p.m. It immediately spread throughout the building, which contained large amounts of cork, paint, wood, and expanded polystyrene, all highly combustible materials. Fifteen Seville firefighters quickly arrived on the scene, but the fire was violent and the structure of the building was transformed into a torch in a few minutes. The thick column of smoke was visible from almost everywhere in the city. All of the workers inside managed to get out without sustaining serious injuries, although the last two were evacuated by ambulance with symptoms of smoke inhalation. More than a thousand workers gathered around the burning building, many of them crying helplessly.

The fire burned for more than three hours. Later, the organizers confirmed that the pavilion had been destroyed and would not be in the exhibition.

Artist Eduardo Arroyo was commissioned to create a cover for the burnt facade. In the end, the damaged pavilion was hidden by nearly 2,000 brightly painted ladders and 50 giant chimney sweeps.

Expo ’92 was held as scheduled from April 20 to October 12, 1992.

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