MANHATTAN (CN) - A "Madonna and Child" painting by a 13th century artist "within the ambit of Cimabue" that disappeared from a Swiss safety deposit box nearly three decades ago was imported to the United State this year for Sotheby's auction of "Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture," federal prosecutors claim in a forfeiture complaint.
In a catalogue for its Jan. 24, 2014 auction, Sotheby's attributed the panel painting to a "Florentine painter within the ambit of Cimabue," a major pre-Renaissance artist. The painting is believed to have been done "circa 1285 and 1290," the complaint states.
Cimabue, a painter and mosaicist, is considered to be the last great Italian artist in the Byzantine style. Art historians view his work as a bridge between the iconography of that period and the emerging realism of the Renaissance.
Prosecutors claim the "Madonna and Child" was stolen from a safe deposit box in Geneva, Switzerland in 1986.
On Monday, the U.S. Attorney's Office filed a forfeiture complaint listing the artwork as the defendant.
Sotheby's, which is not accused of wrongdoing, said in an email statement that it "cooperated fully with the government on this matter."
"We first became aware of an issue with the painting when it was flagged during our due diligence process; we voluntarily pulled the painting from auction before the U.S. government was involved and held it pending further instructions from relevant authorities," Sotheby's said. "We have no comment on the substance of the allegations in the government's complaint as Sotheby's has had no involvement in the underlying dispute."
The complaint details a mysterious Feb. 6, 1991 report that Geneva police provided to Interpol investigating the theft allegations, which appear to involve a squabble over an inheritance from the late Camille Marie Rose Aprosio.
That report is thin on details about the lives of Aprosio and her family, and it is difficult to locate public information about them.
Born Aligardi, Aprosio owned half of the painting when she died in 1980, and left her interest to her heirs Paulette and Roger Aligardi, according to the complaint.
These heirs designated as a representative to that interest a man named Henri Aligardi, whose relationship to them is not revealed in the complaint. The other half of the interest belonged to a man named John Cunningham, prosecutors say.
"In or about 1986, Henri Aligardi and Cunningham placed the painting in a new safe deposit box at a separate branch of UBS in Geneva," the complaint states.
"The heirs of Camille Marie Rose Aprosio reported that Cunningham had also ceded a percentage of his interest in the painting to two other individuals, Michael Hennessy and John Ryan. Hennessy and Ryan subsequently reported that Cunningham had removed the painting from UBS to an account held at Lloyd's Bank in Geneva and solely in Cunningham's name."
The complaint does not state what happened to the piece for the more than two decades after it was reported missing.
In January this year, the painting was imported to the United States and consigned to Sotheby's, which set a minimum bid price of "over $5,000," prosecutors say.
That does not appear to be its actual value, but the statutory minimum to trigger a forfeiture action.
While this "Madonna and Child" was pulled before the Jan. 24 auction, the other works sold netted a total of more than $51 million, ranging from the tens of thousands to the millions of dollars, according to Sotheby's website.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to assign a more specific value for the painting it wishes to seize.