While history is rife with art crime, it’s less common for someone to steal a painting they already own. But that’s the case with Spanish banking magnate Jaime Botin, who was busted in 2015 for attempting to smuggle his Picasso painting, “Head of a Young Woman” (1906), valued at €26 million (~$29 million), out of Spain via his yacht. Prosecutors accused the 83-year-old billionaire and former Bankinter chairman of defying a court order that the work — deemed one of cultural significance to Spain — remain in the country. In addition to a fine of €52 million (~$58 million), Botin received an 18-month jail sentence, which will likely be deferred in light of the defendant’s age, first-time offender status — and because he’s super-rich and a member of an influential banking family.
The verdict, which can be appealed, also transfers possession of the painting, designated as a national treasure, to the Spanish state. According to artnet, Spain’s laws on the protection of cultural heritage are said to be among the strictest in Europe. Any work of art older than 100 years is considered a national treasure, requiring a state-issued permit for export. Botin’s application for such a permit was rejected, so the billionaire took matters into his own hands.
Botin argued in his defense that he was not trying to sell the painting — having already been informed in 2012 that he needed official permission from the Spanish government to do so in a Christie’s London auction. Rather, he was merely attempting to take the painting to Switzerland for “safekeeping,” according to a Reuters article. The painting was found by French customs officials in 2015, during a search off the island of Corsica.
For those of us who despair at an art market driven so thoroughly by the whims of the obscenely wealthy, there is something heartening in the notion that art can belong first and foremost to a people, regardless of who has bought and paid for it. The lesson here is clear: just because you are ridiculously rich, you can’t up and go taking your Picasso for a cruise on your yacht! It must be very upsetting, as a billionaire, to have any limitations placed on when and where you sell your Picassos. If the intention was, indeed, to sell the painting, it has surely backfired, resulting in the loss of painting itself, fines well in excess of its appraised value, and a looming (but unlikely) prison sentence. All of this might potentially make Botin less of a billionaire, but probably he’ll be okay (according to Forbes, he has a net worth of $1.7 billion, his tarnished reputation as a contraband smuggler notwithstanding). Take note, billionaires!! Your actions have consequences (sort of)!