BRUSSELS, Belgium – Authorities recovered a missing $3.5 million painting by renowned Spanish master painter Joaquin Sorolla during one of the largest anti-corruption cases in the country’s history.
The Sorolla painting, “Antes de la corrida” (“Before the Bullfight”), was found in a Belgian warehouse in Brussels on Oct. 15 and handed over to the Spanish embassy. It had been missing for three years. The owner of the picture had tried to illegally export the artwork out of Spain.
An acclaimed painter of the late 19th and early 20th century, Sorolla was described as “the world’s greatest living painter” in 1908, when he held an exhibition of over 200 paintings in London.
The “Bullfight” painting sought by authorities was part of the anti-corruption “caso Malaya” (Malaya case) that began in Marbella, Spain, in 2006. The owner of the painting, Carlos Sanchez, was sentenced to four years and four months prison for money laundering, bribery and fraud, according to a Spanish police statement. He was released on parole in December 2017.
In the same year, a warrant was issued in Malaga for the seizure of the Sorolla painting, but it disappeared before officers could carry it out.
Spanish officers specializing in Historic Heritage of the National Police finally raided the suspect’s house in Malaga in June 2020 to retrieve a number of outstanding artworks sought in the case, including the Sorolla, per Spanish police.
After investigators found nothing, Sanchez admitted he had sold the artworks to a foreign fund four years earlier. Export documents showed the Sorolla painting had left the country with official permission. The spokeswoman said Spanish police managed to confirm the Sorolla painting had been exhibited at an art and antiquity fair in New York City in 2019, but then disappeared.
According to police findings, the artwork was stored in the warehouse in Brussels by the same person who was named in the export permit.
The Caso Malaya started in 2006 with the objective of exposing a network involved in hiding numerous illicit activities carried out by Marbella City Council members, businessmen, pop stars and prominent lawyers. It is now in its third phase.
More than 50 people have been arrested so far, including the singer Isabel Pantoja. who was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to 24 months on charges of money laundering, which she allegedly as an accomplice of Julian Munoz, the former mayor of Marbella and her boyfriend at the time.
Munoz, who headed the Independent Liberal Group in the city council, served as mayor of Marbella on the Spanish coast from 2002-2003. In 2006, he was arrested in connection with Caso Malaya and convicted of several instances of bribery, embezzlement and breach of trust. He was released in 2008, but convicted again in 2013 for other charges related to Caso Malaya.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) is an important Spanish painter, well known for his portraits, sun-kissed landscapes and works that address social and historical themes. The Sorolla Museum in Madrid, formerly the artist’s home, is dedicated to his eclectic artistry, housing over 1,200 paintings. The museum opened in 1932.
Separately, a Sorolla portrait stolen in 2002 from a chalet in Adanero (Ávila), along with a Salvador Dali, and a floral painting by Rosen Roses, was recovered in 2011. London’s National Gallery purchased its first Sorolla, “The Drunkard” (1910), in June, paying an estimated $422,000.
(Edited by Fern Siegel and Carlin Becker)
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