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The Mystery Buyer of Italy’s Priciest Painting

The identity of the mystery buyer of the costliest work of art ever sold at an auction in Italy will be revealed later this month when the work goes on display at a privately owned hotel in Rome. Those in the know, though, have already deduced who it is.

LONDON—The identity of the mystery buyer of the costliest work of art ever sold at an auction in Italy will be revealed later this month when the work goes on display at a privately owned hotel in Rome. Those in the know, though, have already deduced who it is.

The work, a cycle of five paintings—three of them by the 18th-century rococo artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo—was commissioned by Count Tommaso Sandi to enhance his family’s palace in Venice in the 1720s. This past May it was offered for sale by the count’s descendants at Sotheby’s in Milan. The house described the paintings as “the most important works by Tiepolo to have appeared at auction in the last half a century.”

However, because of Italy’s strict export laws that prevent overseas buyers from taking away items of great cultural and national significance, the sale was limited to buyers who would keep the paintings together as one work and, further, keep them in Italy.

Consequently the paintings, which are allegorical variations on the theme of the power and eloquence of virtue, were estimated to fetch just €5 million. In New York or London, said Sotheby’s, the paintings could have made more than £15 million ($27.8 million).

At auction they sold to an anonymous buyer for €5.9 million ($7.5 million)—a record but still a bargain if concerns about making a profit on the international market are not an issue.

So who was the anonymous buyer? Last week news seeped out that the paintings were on their way to the privately owned Cavalieri Hilton hotel in Rome. Although staff at the hotel are not saying who the private owner of the hotel is, sources in Italy have identified him as Angelo Guido Terruzzi, a Genoese industrialist who owns probably the largest and best collection of 18th-century Venetian paintings in the world.

A Trove Valued at $665M

Although extremely secretive, Terruzzi, who is known as “the king of nickel” in Italy, owns properties in Milan and Bordighera, as well as villas in the south of France and Acapulco. His art collection of 4,000 works is estimated to be worth over £350 million ($665 million). Along with paintings by the most highly priced view painters, Canaletto and Bernardo Bellotto, he is said to own 40 paintings by Sebastiano Ricci, 30 by Jacopo Amigoni, 15 Tintorettos, 15 Guardis and countless lesser-known artists—all “of the highest quality,” says author and cultural commentator Vittorio Sgarbi.

Undoubtedly Terruzzi, who could not be reached for comment, would be better-known internationally if his offer last year to take a controlling share of Venice’s 18th-century Palazzo Grassi to show his collection had been accepted. However, in a move that outraged conservatives in the Italian art world, his £18.3 million ($33 million) bid was thwarted, and Venice opted for the contemporary art collection of Francois Pinault, who offered £19.3 million ($34.7 million) for the palace.

For the moment, then, the Cavalieri Hilton is the only place to see Terruzzi’s collection. Since buying the hotel in the 1980s, he has lavished more than $60 million on its refurbishment in the last four years alone. The hotel boasts La Pergola, one of the best restaurants in the city, a top fitness spa and, perched on a hill overlooking the Vatican, unrivaled views of Rome. But what really makes the hotel stand out is Terruzzi’s collection of art and antiques.

At the entrance, visitors see a gilt-bronze mounted kingwood parquetry commode, made in 1745 for the king of Poland. In the reception area are four 18th-century Venetian landscapes by Giuseppe Zais and two by the rococo painter Giuseppe Bazzani. The ballroom is hung with 18th-century Beauvais tapestries depicting the history of the king of China. The 370 guest rooms and 25 suites are decorated with authentic 18th-century paintings and furniture.

The arrival of the record-breaking Sandi paintings at the hotel can also be seen as the latest round in a contest that has developed among three cities as to which of them will eventually show the blockbuster Terruzzi collection. The province of Veneto has reopened a bid to show it in Venice, and Milan is said to be interested too. But there are whispers about a palazzo in Rome.

Terruzzi is known to have strong connections with the art trade in Rome, and, as Milan Arandelovic, general manager of the Cavaliere Hilton, says confidentially, but without naming names, “All paths lead to Rome.”

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