ROME – Italian tax police said Saturday that they had seized works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and other giants of art in a crackdown on assets hidden by the disgraced founder of the collapsed dairy company Parmalat.
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Authorities estimated the 19 masterpieces stashed away in attics and basements were valued at some $150 million.
Parma Prosecutor Gerardo Laguardia said that, based on wiretapped phone conversations, officials believed at least one of the paintings was about to be sold.
"We got lucky. We learned that there were negotiations under way to sell one of the paintings" and raid three apartments in the area of Parma, near Parmalat's headquarters, Laguardia said in an interview on Italy's Sky TG24 TV. He didn't identify the painting.
Bologna-based tax Police Col. Piero Iovino told The Associated Press by telephone that investigators believed the entire batch of paintings, watercolors and drawings were up to be sold. The prospective purchaser was a Russian, "possibly" living in Italy, Iovino said.
No arrests were announced as part of the art seizure.
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Police showed some of the paintings to journalists near Parmalat's headquarters Saturday.
Italian courts have ruled that Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi bore the brunt of responsibility for the 2003 collapse of Parmalat. The daily and juice multinational was brought down by billions of dollars of debt in fraudulent bankruptcy. Many small investors losing life savings were among some 40,000 defrauded bondholders.
Tanzi was convicted by a Milan court last year of market-rigging and other charges in one of multiple probes.
For years after the collapse, Tanzi was rumored to have had a "hidden treasure" somewhere. On Nov. 29, a state TV show alleged that Tanzi had amassed artwork to try to shelter himself from the effects of imminent collapse of Parmalat.
After the TV show, "we tightened the screws" and zeroed in on Tanzi son-in-law Stefano Strini, Iovino said. "He told us that the paintings were Tanzi's" and led police to the apartments, the colonel said.
As Europe's largest corporate failure — Parmalat collapsed under euro14 billion in crushing debt — loomed, Tanzi moved to put his wealth into "property whose value endures through time," Iovino said.
Only a few days ago, Tanzi denied having any stash of art treasures.
Among the masterpieces was a pencil on paper portrait of a ballerina by Dega, two Van Goghs, including a depiction of a trunk of a willow tree and a still life, a watercolor by Cezanne and a pencil-work by Modigliani.