July 4, 2016 / 2:07 PM / a year ago

Giacometti art trove at center of Franco-Swiss legal tussle

The top half of Alberto Giacometti's "L'homme Au Doigt" (Pointing man) sculpture is pictured at Christie's Auction House in the Manhattan borough of New York May 11, 2015.Carlo Allegri/File Photo

ZURICH (Reuters) - A rich trove of drawings by Alberto Giacometti and photographs of the renowned sculptor and artist has been lying in sealed storage cartons in a Swiss museum for more than two years due to a legal dispute over their rightful ownership.

Swiss prosecutors said they had ordered the seizure of the collection pending a decision by a French court after the Paris-based Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation alleged that the works had been stolen decades ago.

The Swiss-born Giacometti, who died in 1966, is one of the best-known sculptors of the 20th century. His "Pointing Man" sold last year at Christie's for $141 million, the largest sum ever for a sculpture.

But the legal tussle over a relatively obscure collection of drawings and photos has played out quietly, in lawyers' offices and hushed museum corridors in what Swiss courts call a "prosecution against unknown persons" by French authorities.

The Foundation in Paris, home to some 5,000 Giacometti works, the world's largest collection, has not said whom it accuses of theft. Sabine Longin, director of development at the foundation, told Reuters it would speak publicly of the issue only after the ownership battle had been resolved.

"They have asked us to confiscate the drawings and photographs, which we have done," said Claudio Riedi of the local prosecutors' office in the Swiss town of Chur where the museum holding the drawings and photos is located.

"Whether there is a separate request for them to be returned is up to the French court."

The collection includes 16 Giacometti sketches and 101 photographs of him by famous photographers including Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau covering a period from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Though Swiss court documents are heavily redacted -- in no place is Giacometti ever named -- Reuters was able to reconstruct the case by speaking with people familiar with its details.

"GREAT ART LOVER"

The collection was in Giacometti's possession when he died in Chur in 1966, but may have changed hands among family members before finding its way to an unidentified "great art lover" in Switzerland around 1998, according to the Swiss court documents.

After learning of the collection in 2009, the Grisons Art Museum in Chur enlisted Remo Stoffel, a local real estate tycoon and patron, to buy it for more than $1 million.

Stoffel then loaned it to the facility for 15 years.

With the collection's first public exhibition in 2011, however, the foundation in Paris lodged a complaint alleging the works had been "fraudulently stolen," Swiss documents indicate.

Since the Swiss police intervened in February 2014, the works have been kept in storage at the museum. A Swiss appeals court two months ago rejected a bid to at least allow the collection to be exhibited, pending a court ruling.

On Monday Stoffel confirmed his role as a benefactor to the museum, but declined direct comment on the case.

Museum director Stephan Kunz and his predecessor, Beat Stutzer, who organised the original deal with Stoffel that brought the collection to Chur, also declined comment, citing the legal proceedings.

Art historians say the collection provides an intimate glimpse into the life of Giacometti and his contemporaries.

In one 1946 photo, for instance, Bresson captures Giacometti and his wife descending a staircase to his Parisian studio. Another shows him sculpting in the Swiss village of Stampa in 1964, two years before his death from heart and lung disease.

And in a sketch dashed off almost casually on a magazine page, Giacometti offers his rendition of a Picasso nude on the facing page -- art imitating art.

"It offers a very important documentation of the artist and his private side," said Katharina Ammann, a Swiss art expert who helped produce a catalog of the works that accompanied the 2011 exhibition.

"It is also the perfect accompaniment for the few Giacometti works already part of the Grisons museum's collection."

Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Gareth Jones

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