Italy’s junior culture minister Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic and outspoken TV personality whose brief includes protecting the country’s cultural heritage, is under investigation over a 17th century painting in his possession that police said had been stolen.
The painting disappeared from a castle near the northern Italian city of Turin in 2013, the art heritage squad of the Carabinieri police said in a statement.
Prosecutors suspect it ended up in Mr Sgarbi’s hands through fraudulent means and are investigating him over the alleged laundering of stolen goods, police added.
The politician has denied any wrongdoing, and says he found the painting – which he has attributed to Siena-based painter Rutilio Manetti – in a villa his mother bought about 100km north of Rome.
Mr Sgarbi, 71, is a long-serving politician who was close to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who died last year. He is notorious for his short temper, frequent use of swear words and playboy lifestyle – but also respected as a curator and art expert.
The Carabinieri police said Mr Sgarbi is also suspected of having slightly modified the painting, adding a torch to its top left corner to hide its criminal provenance.
The artwork, along with a 3D copy of it, has been seized from a warehouse following a series of searches ordered by prosecutors, they added.
The painting, which Mr Sgarbi called “The Capture of St Peter,” shows a judge sentencing a man who looks like the Christian saint.
Police said the artist was unknown but is reminiscent of Francesco Solimena and Bernardo Cavallino, two other 17th century Italian painters.