Authorities from France and the U.S. raided a Puerto Rico-based foundation dedicated to the work of the pioneering Op-Art painter Victor Vasarely yesterday.
More than 100 Vasarely works of art were allegedly taken from the premises and loaded onto a truck, according to local reports.
The Michèle Vasarely Foundation in Old San Juan was the target of the operation, which was carried out under the order of a French judge, and supported by members of the FBI, the Agence France-Presse reported. A spokesperson for the FBI did not immediately return a request for comment.
Why the artworks were seized remains unclear. But the head of the foundation, Michele Taburno-Vasarely, Victor’s former daughter in law, has been embroiled in a knotty legal battle with Vasarely’s grandson, Pierre Vasarely, over the ownership of hundreds of the late artist’s paintings.
The complicated saga between the two parties goes back years.
Pierre Vasarely, who heads the Vasarely Foundation in Paris, has claimed that Taburno-Vasarely illegally transferred 600 works of art to the U.S., then Puerto Rico, in 2012. The following year, a French court ordered that 200 paintings from the group, which were allegedly in Taburno-Vasarely’s posession, be returned to the foundation. As of last December, Taburno-Vasarely, had not complied.
Taburno-Vasarely, is the second wife and widow of Victor Vasarely’s son, Jean-Pierre Vasarely, or Yvaral, who died in 2002.
In 2008, she was arrested in Chicago for attempting to relocate a collection of Vasarely paintings. The artworks—which were estimated, at the time, to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—had been reported as stolen by a dealer named Thomas Monahan. They were later returned to the foundation in Paris.
Last December, Pierre Vasarely accused the London-based gallery Mazzoleni Art of selling two artworks that belonged to the Vasarely Foundation. The pieces had been consigned to the gallery by Taburno-Vasarely, who claimed ownership.
“What I wish is for my stepmother to execute the judiciary ruling,” Pierre Vasarely told the at the time, referring to the 2013 court order. “It is not me; it’s not anyone else; it’s the French justice system, who are asking a French person who lives abroad to return expert works to France.”
Regarded as one of the grandfathers of Op Art, Vasarely was born in Hungary in 1906 and became a French citizen in 1961. He was known for his graphic, geometric abstractions that played with perspective, often to illusory effect. The artist established his eponymous foundation in 1976, and served as its honorary president until the decline of his health in the early 1990s. Vasarely died in Paris on March 15, 1997.
From 1981 to 1990, the foundation was overseen by Charles Debbasch, a French lawyer and academic. Debbasch was later convicted of embezzling money from the organization and selling Vasarely works on the side. He was arrested in 1994.