The painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was intercepted by Italian police. (photo via Carabinieri TPC)

Italian police say they stopped the Viennese auction house Dorotheum from selling an oil painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th-century Italian painter who is most famous for her depictions of female strength in the face of male cruelty.

An investigation into the painting began in 2020, according to a press release from the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TPC), Italian law enforcement’s art crime unit. Gentileschi’s painting “Caritas Romana” was reportedly exported in 2019 with documents that concealed the identity of the painting’s creator and assigned the work a lowball value. Carabinieri TPC now values the work at €2,000,000 (~$2,036,100). Italy’s strict antiquity export laws often ban the movement of its cultural heritage to other countries.

A spokesperson for Dorotheum, however, told Hyperallergic that the painting was “legally exported” by its owners using an export license from the Italian Monuments Office that listed it as “attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi and/or Onofrio Palumbo, formerly attributed to Massimo Stanzione.”

“This export license was subsequently revoked in 2020,” the spokesperson added. “The owners, who inherited the painting, have since been in an open legal dispute with the export authority over the revocation of this export permit from Italy. The painting was neither offered in an auction nor in a private treaty.”

“The painting was on the verge of being auctioned,” Carabinieri Lieutenant Coronel Alfio Gullotta told Italian state TV. “Caritas Romana” has returned to the Italian city of Bari, where it is being held by the government. Should a coming trial find the painting’s current owners guilty, “Caritas Romana” could become the permanent property of the state and possibly end up on the walls of a museum.

Gentileschi has become increasingly popular in recent years, but the artist also achieved a high level of success during her lifetime, a rarity for a woman in the 17th-century Italian art world. Still, Gentileschi is often discussed in relation to an incident of sexual assault that took place in her teenage years: At age 18, she was raped by her father’s friend, and after accusing the man (a famous painter), she was tortured during the trial.

In much of her work, Gentileschi depicted women suffering and painted them into scenes of violence. Recent considerations of the artist, however, have granted her more autonomy in how she crafted her own life — one of wealth and power which she carefully cultivated. Other investigations into Gentileschi have emphasized her overtly feminist principles and actions, and the themes in her paintings, from the Early Modern era, are enduringly resonant today.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.