Santander billionaire and Spain in tussle over Picasso painting

Peter Wise in Lisbon

A luxury yacht carrying a rarely seen Picasso painting owned by Jaime Botín, a billionaire patriarch of the Spanish banking dynasty that founded Santander, has sailed into the centre of a controversy over protecting "national treasures".

Since at least 2012, "Head of a Young Woman", the 1906 painting valued at €26m is believed to have been kept aboard a three-mast "super yacht" called the Adix — the familiar name of Mr Botín's wife Adela — while the retired banker and art collector has been fighting a legal battle with Spanish authorities over plans to export the painting.

Pascal Pochard Casabianca | AFP | Getty Images

This week the prized Picasso was at the centre of another storm after French customs police seized the painting from the Adix while it was moored off the island of Corsica.

French customs found the painting carefully wrapped in the captain's cabin, following a request filed in Corsica to export the painting to Switzerland. Mr Botín was not on board the yacht, valued at more than $30m, at the time of the raid.

When asked for documentation to justify the request an official said the captain could produce only a valuation of the artwork and a Spanish legal form declaring it to be a "national treasure" and banned from export.

The latest frustrated attempt by Mr Botín, 79, the uncle of Ana Patricia Botín, Santander's chairman, to export the Picasso has sparked debate in Spain over controversial legislation that prevents private collectors from selling treasured artworks abroad but fails to ensure their acquisition by the state.

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In March, a Madrid court upheld a government decision to ban the export of a letter written in 1498 by the explorer Christopher Columbus. The House of Alba, one of Spain's wealthiest families, had been fighting for years for permission to auction the letter abroad.

The Albas had argued unsuccessfully in court that proceeds from the sale of the Columbus letter, valued at €21m, would have covered the upkeep of the family foundation's vast collection of artworks ranging from palaces to paintings by Goya, Renoir and Picasso.

The Alba Foundation also contended that Spain's policy of not allowing art treasures to leave the country went against the spirit of the EU.

Mr Botín, 79, who retired as vice-president of Banco Santander in 2004 saying he wanted to "live life", acquired "Head of a Young Woman" in 1977 at the Marlborough Fine Art Fair in London. In 2012 the Spanish branch of Christie's sought permission on his behalf to export the work to London.

Spain's culture ministry rejected the request on the grounds that the painting was a rare example of Picasso's Gósol period (1906-1909), named after the town in Catalonia where the artist was then living, and that no similar artwork existed in Spain.

Mr Botín, brother of the late Emilio Botín, the former Santander chairman, appealed against the decision, contesting that the painting was owned by Euroshipping Charter, a Panamanian-registered company, with links to Santander.

He also argued that the painting was not legally on Spanish soil as it was on board the Adix, a yacht that flies the British flag and was then anchored at the Spanish port of Valencia.

Both these arguments were dismissed by the Spanish authorities and in May this year La Audiencia Nacional, Spain's high court, upheld the culture ministry's initial ruling that the Picasso was "non-exportable".

Lawyers opposed to legislation that allows the state to ban the export of artworks more than 100 years old argue that it effectively condemns their owners and heirs to keep them in perpetuity, because neither the state nor the Spanish art market have the financial resources to acquire them.

Critics also complain that the application of the law is inconsistent. While the Columbus letter was subject to an export ban, an El Greco painting that had been in Spain since at least 1903 was sold by Sotheby's in London two years ago for £3.4m.

However, supporters say the government's power to ban art exports is essential to prevent a "silent plundering" of treasured works that have been held in Spain for centuries.

Additional reporting by Michael Stothard in Paris

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