At a Famous Florence Old Masters Fair, Italy’s Impending Elections Have Dealers Fretting About the Future of Its Art Market

On the eve of snap general elections in Italy that will most likely bring victory to a far-right party with fascist connections, residents of Florence have been busy toasting the return of the city’s art week for the first time since the pandemic.

At the country’s premier fair for Old Masters, BIAF, the Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato di Firenze, international curators from the Met and LACMA met elbows with Italian colleagues from the Uffizi in the elegant mid-17th-century Palazzo Corsini Presence of important collectors such as the American music producer John Landau (a renowned sculpture connoisseur who also happens to be Bruce Springsteen’s manager). Elsewhere, in the open-air courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, which has been striving to attract a younger audience to the art, a DJ entertained Instagram art influencers at a stunning Olafur Eliasson exhibition.

Italy’s general election, taking place on Sunday September 25, was sparked by the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi earlier this summer amid political infighting and the collapse of his fragile coalition government of left, right and centrist parties. Currently leading the polls is the so-called “centre-right coalition,” made up of four parties, the largest of which is the right-wing, nationalist Italy brothers of Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d’Italia), rooted in a neo-fascist party founded after the death of Benito Mussolini. There are also Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant, nationalist Northern League (Northern League), and the more moderate party of ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Go Italy (Forza Italy).

Among the 800 participants at the BIAF gala dinner, the mood regarding Italy’s political state was a general sense of hope that a change of government could provide an opportunity to solve the problems plaguing Italy’s art market. While the global Old Masters auction market had its best first half in five years, with growth of nearly 20 percent and sales of $405.9 million (according to data from Artnet’s price database), the Italian auction market had the worst first half since 2017, total sales down 27 percent from 2021. And where the private market for the Old Masters category is also seeing positive moves as pent-up demand from lockdown spills over as shown by Reports from TEFAF Maastricht earlier this yearin Florence people complained about a state at “war” with its art dealers.

Antonio Canova, Autoritratto di Giorgione.  Courtesy AL Fine Art Antonacci Lapiccirella, Rome.

Antonio Canova, Autoritratto di Giorgione. Courtesy AL Fine Art Antonacci Lapiccirella, Rome.

The reason for the resentment is Italy’s draconian export laws, which stipulate that the state must issue a special export license for all cultural assets. Works deemed too important to leave Italy – and there are many – are “notified” and can only be sold domestically, where the state monitors their movements closely. BIAF Chairman Fabrizio Moretti confirmed that about 10 percent of the items on display at the fair are so “registered,” with a further 25 percent not having an export license, meaning only about 65 percent of the items are safely marketed to international buyers could .

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A rediscovered work by Antonio Canova on the stand of the Antonacci Lapiccirella Gallery in Rome caught the attention of more than one passer-by. But dealer Francesca Antonacci told Artnet News that the rare painting (executed by the neoclassical sculptor on a 16th-century panel as part of an elaborate prank commissioned by its patron) had been reported by the state.

“We have this huge problem in Italy. It’s okay if the state thinks that a work of art is very important and should stay in Italy and be exhibited in museums, but then why doesn’t the government buy it? They just stop us and that’s it,” Antonacci said. “As dealers, we do this difficult job: we discover and restore works of art like the Canova and many others, and then we get punished for it. So we really hope that will change.”

The fair’s chairman, Moretti, expressed hope that whoever that future minister of culture might be “will be open to the market”. Which doesn’t mean, he clarified, that they should “open the doors to let artworks leave Italy, but to allow more elasticity between the market and the state to see if we can find a dialogue”.

He added that this includes cutting red tape on temporary imports (currently bureaucratic hurdles can take up to three months). “Let’s hope that the future minister is at least sensible and a man of culture. In Italy we have not had a cultured person in this position for many years. Politicians only. And I think that is extremely wrong.”

Fabrizio Moretti.  Image courtesy of BIAF.

Fabrizio Moretti. Image courtesy of BIAF.

One drama that has occupied politicians in recent years concerns a series of 2015 reforms that allowed foreigners to run major institutions across the country. They were short rolled back under the brief tenure of populist culture minister Alberto Bonisoli, the native Italian preferred in the role. Now, foreign museum directors like Germany’s Uffizi director, Eike Schmidt, could hold their breath to see if a nationalist victory will return the country to a more isolated cultural positioning.

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Several Italian exhibitors at the fair there expressed their displeasure with the great Italian curators who run museums abroad (such as Gabriele Finaldi, director of London’s National Gallery, or Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum). Most agreed that everyone, regardless of nationality, should be eligible to apply for museum posts, but there was a feeling that they would prefer to see Italians in those posts. As Moretti put it, “Do you think the Louvre would have put someone who wasn’t French in that position?”

Palazzo Strozzi director Arturo Galansino hopes that elected politicians, regardless of party affiliation, will recognize the importance of culture as an economic engine. His museum alone brings the city 60 million euros a year. “I think all politicians know that culture is a fundamental asset for Italy and they should invest more and more in culture, because if you look around Florence today, it becomes clear how important it is to promote tourism in order to to make people’s lives better, but also to generate business.”

His museum, which currently hosts a VR exhibition and offers services such as a “teenage kit”, has focused its efforts on attracting Florence’s youth, especially during the pandemic, which is linked to another problem in politics in Italy: one largely disinterested younger generation. A very unscientific poll of fresh-faced partygoers about their voting plans drew more than a shrug, which seems to match Italy’s high number of undecided voters and the estimated 41 percent of voters who do not want to go to the polls, it is said euronews.

Image courtesy of BIAF.

Image courtesy of BIAF.

Also, the aging of the guard has been an issue in the Old Masters market for years. “The world of the Old Masters needs fresh blood,” Moretti said. Efforts to make the field more attractive were visible at the fair, from QR codes for catalog information, to an increased Instagram presence, to a video game aimed at conveying Florentine history. “It’s a cultural problem,” propagated the dealer. “We live today in the deepest moment of culture (in the world, not only in Italy), the new generation is ignorant and uneducated.”

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Moretti said his gallery, Moretti Fine Art, had exhibited alongside Hauser and Wirth at Frieze Masters to try to reach new audiences and had just embarked on a new venture in London with Emma Ward, former executive director of the Dickinson Gallery to works of art of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Contemporary and modern art is a stronger market in the world,” Moretti said. “But we have to try to make these people understand that the Old Masters are the beginning. One cannot understand a modern picture without studying the old masters. And when it comes to investing, Old Masters are very cheap today compared to modern pieces.”

The dialogue between old and new was also a concern of The social democratic mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella. “Florence is not only an incredible cultural heritage capital, but also a major player on the contemporary stage,” Nardella told Artnet News. “This is our challenge: to be a great contemporary city, not just a city museum, but also a vibrant city capital of creativity and innovation. This is the best way to preserve the memory of the Renaissance.”

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