A few months ago, the Piero Manzoni Foundation published a video showing the destruction of 39 alleged forgeries that were attributed to Piero Manzoni by Giuseppe Zecchillo, an Italian opera singer.

Background

In 1963, the Italian baritone rented Manzoni’s last studio, in the heart of Brera, and claimed to have been given a number of Manzoni’s artworks by the artist himself during the last years of his life.

However, when Zecchillo sought authentication of these artworks, a legal battle arose between the singer and the Piero Manzoni Foundation. The dispute was brought before both criminal and civil courts in Italy: in the civil proceedings, the Foundation asked the Milan Court of First Instance to examine the disputed works and confirm they were fakes. At the same time, the Foundation sued[1] Giuseppe Zecchillo in the criminal courts, on the grounds that he played a leading role in the creation of the forged paintings.

Italian legal framework

Under Italian law, an allegation of forgery can lead to legal action in the civil courts and in the criminal courts.   Whilst specialized civil judges typically rule over disputes over the alleged breach of intellectual property rights, the alleged breach of the same rights is also subject to the jurisdiction of criminal courts. For instance, under the Italian Copyright Act (Law 633/1941), the right to claim authorship of an artwork can be brought before the civil jurisdiction. Pursuant to Article 178 of the Italian Cultural Heritage and Landscape Code (Legislative Decree 42/2004), the creator of a forgery can also be drawn before the criminal courts and subject to fines and/or imprisonment for up to four years.

The Italian Supreme Court (see, inter alia, Supreme Court decision No. 1768 dated 26 January 2011) has consistently held that civil and criminal proceedings relating to connected legal disputes can run in parallel, save in exceptional circumstances (as provided for in the Italian Procedural Codes) where the parties must suspend civil proceedings to await the outcome of criminal proceedings. If such an exception does not apply, the general principle of independence and autonomy of criminal and civil proceedings entails the risk of conflicting judgments on the same issue in the civil and criminal courts.

Conflicting judgments

This is exactly what happened in the case at hand: the two proceedings (the civil case brought by the Foundation, and the criminal prosecution against Zecchillo) ran in parallel and led to conflicting conclusions. In the civil case, the judge considered the graphological analysis of Piero Manzoni’s signature and concluded that the works were forgeries, accordingly they must be destroyed on the expiry of the limitation period for challenging the decision on appeal. In the criminal case, the criminal judge disregarded the stylistic assessment presented by the court appointed expert (which was considered too subjective) and concluded that there was no evidence to demonstrate that Zecchillo had hired forgers to create the disputed works.

Both decisions were appealed but, following Giuseppe Zecchillo’s death in 2011, the criminal trial came to an end and his son Graziano did not appeal the civil judgment. As a result, the standstill period set by the civil judge for the destruction of the works expired in 2015 and the 39 disputed artworks were destroyed last December.

Outstanding issues

These decisions leave several legal issues in relation to alleged forgeries unresolved. Under Italian law (Article 169 of the Italian Copyright Act), whilst Italian judges have the exclusive power to order the destruction of a forgery, this is an option of ‘last resort’, to be relied upon only when there is no alternative method to inform the public that the artwork is a forgery.

Article 46 of the TRIPS Agreement (the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, an international agreement between all the member nations of the World Trade Organization) stresses the ‘need for proportionality between the seriousness of the infringement and the remedy, as well as the interests of third parties’. The Court of Milan took this principle into account in an earlier case also involving an artwork attributed to Piero Manzoni, in that case an Achrome[2] owned by Rossana Gallo. Despite the fact that the artwork was deemed a forgery, it was not destroyed (June 2006); the Court simply ordered that it be expressly indicated on the artwork that it was not by Piero Manzoni.

In addition, it is not entirely clear whether a civil judgment ordering destruction can prevail over a criminal verdict of acquittal. In fact, this seems to conflict with earlier decisions of the Italian Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court has taken the view that, depending on the grounds of acquittal in the criminal trial, if the criminal trial was conducted as ordinary adversarial proceedings and resulted in a decision of acquittal, the civil judge should accept that the acquittal is undisputed and final.

Rumours

An interesting interpretation of the Foundation’s determination to remove ‘forgeries’ from the market has recently been put forward by Lionel Ceresi, a lawyer involved in a separate legal dispute involving the Manzoni Foundation. According to Ceresi, the Foundation’s manipulates the authentication process in order to boost the value of their own holdings of the artist’s works.  The argument is not new.  The Warhol Foundation, amongst other artist foundations, stood accused of declaring certain works by Warhol inauthentic in order to remove them from the market, thereby boosting the value of their own stock.  If one accepts that an artist foundation’s primary objective is the protection of the artist’s legacy, destroying original works by the artist for financial gain would be truly shocking.

By Francesca Barra

[1] Generally, only prosecutors can pursue criminal charges under Italian law. However, in connection with some offences (inter alia, counterfeiting), private parties are entitled to file criminal complaints if they have material information on an alleged crime having been committed.

[2] An Achrome is a one metre square, monochromatic artwork made of china-clay on canvas.