VATICAN CITY— Rights to the Vatican Museums’ priceless trove of art treasures may have been illegally sold without the Holy See’s approval in what one attorney described as a “high-tech heist,” according to a Daily Wire investigation.
The Vatican Museums own some 70,000 works of art, including works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s ceiling mural in the Sistine Chapel. Its museums draw over six million visitors annually and bring in more than $120 million in revenue. But an Italian company is allegedly selling the rights to reproduce the Vatican artwork in six-figure deals, while claiming to be working in “collaboration with” the Vatican Museums.
“This scheme is nothing less than a pre-meditated, high-tech heist of world-class treasured art from the Vatican Museums under the disguise of bogus licenses, as if sanctioned by the Vatican,” Sarah Rose Speno, a New York attorney, told The Daily Wire.
Rights to reproduce the art could bring in needed revenue for the Vatican, which reported a deficit of more than $3 million last year amid ongoing financial and sex abuse scandals. Speno believes the parties misappropriating rights to Vatican artwork housed exclusively within Vatican Museums and under the jurisdiction of the Vatican are in effect stealing from the Holy See.
Speno said she stumbled upon the alleged scheme in March when she sought permission to use images of Vatican art for an exhibition by a client.
“We discovered that a large table book had been published with high-resolution images of the interiors of the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel,” Speno said. “We very much wanted to pursue an opportunity to license these images, as soon as possible.”
Speno, who has worked on licensing contracts for more than 30 years, contacted Scripta Maneant — the Italian publisher that licensed the photos in the book. Scripta Maneant claimed authority to broker the publishing rights via its “collaboration” with Vatican Museums vice director, Monsignore Paolo Nicolini. Scripta Maneant wanted $550,000 for the rights — with a portion being paid to the Vatican through Nicolini, according to Speno. Although Scripta Maneant claimed the fee would be shared with the Vatican, Speno said she later became suspicious.
“The Scripta Maneant scheme became obvious when the Scripta principals demanded a cash wire in the amount of $82,500 no later than their return from summer holiday in late August,” Speno said. “They said that they would produce Vatican approval for our Italian Renaissance Immersive project ‘if and only if’ the fee were wired to the Scripta bank account they provided. It was at this point that grave suspicion entered my mind.”
Ultimately, Speno said, “we terminated the deal when Scripta could not provide us with documented consent by the Vatican.”
According to the contract Scripta Maneant provided Speno, the company had been given exclusive access to the Sistine Chapel by the Vatican Museums back in 2015. But documents reviewed by The Daily Wire suggest that the deal only covered access to take high-resolution images of Vatican artwork for a limited edition book, priced at over $22,000 a copy. Vatican Museums told The Daily Wire that Scripta Maneant’s licensing rights to the images obtained in 2015 were contractually restricted — limited solely to their company, for one project. No exclusive, unlimited, worldwide rights were provided, and no rights to sub-license the photos of Vatican Museums artwork to third parties were granted, officials said.
Nicolini, whom Scripta Maneant cited as its authorizing Vatican contact, told The Daily Wire he never gave Scripta Maneant approval to broker rights to Vatican art images. He denied Scripta Maneant’s claims it had rights to reuse or sub-license images from the 2015 contract. He also adamantly denied handling any funds related to the Vatican’s dealings with Scripta Maneant.
Communications reviewed by The Daily Wire indicate Scripta Maneant sold licensing rights over a year ago to Lighthouse Immersive for its “Immersive Vatican” exhibition, which launched in October. Speno suspects that exhibition was facilitated by a Scripta Maneant contract much like the one she rejected.
“At the same time my investors received their ‘exclusive license agreement’ from Scripta, Lighthouse Immersive announced their ‘Immersive Vatican Exhibition in collaboration with The Vatican,’” Speno said.
“Immersive Vatican” appears set to follow Lighthouse Immersive’s other events, such as “Immersive King Tut,” nationwide. According to its website, visitors in Boston paid up to $79.99 to experience “the art world’s best-kept secrets” and “iconic and rarely seen masterpieces brought to life.” The site touted the event as being conducted in “collaboration with the Vatican.”
Nicolini denied any knowledge of Lighthouse Immersive or Scripta Maneant’s dealings with the company. He said no contracts permitting rights to artwork exist between Lighthouse Immersive and the Vatican Museums, or through Scripta Maneant on behalf of Lighthouse Immersive.
Lighthouse Immersive creative consultant Richard Ouzounian told The Daily Wire his company obtained the high-resolution images and rights to use them from Scripta Maneant. When The Daily Wire asked to what extent Lighthouse Immersive was “in collaboration with the Vatican,” as stated on advertisements and their website, Ouzounian said that Vatican officials “did not have to approve it.” “They did not have veto power over it,” said Ouzounian.
Ouzounian said his company’s deal via Scripta Maneant gave Lighthouse Immersive rights to “reproduce artwork from the Vatican Museums, which include all paintings, sculptures, frescos, architecture, blueprints and artifacts.” He declined to say how much his company paid Scripta Maneant.
The Daily Wire reached out to Lighthouse Immersive co-founder Svetlana Dzoretsky and Operations and Special Projects Manager Natasha Abramova to seek clarification of their claims to licensing rights.
“Please know that at Lighthouse, we work very carefully to obtain all the appropriate documents when producing our exhibits,” Dzoretsky replied.
Lighthouse Immersive declined further inquiry and did not provide additional documents.
Scripta Maneant head of logistics, Francesco Iori, told The Daily Wire his company has done nothing wrong.
“I can assure that all the materials used have been approved and we have all the documents needed,” Iori wrote in an email.
When asked to provide documentation of its licensing rights, Iori said he would need approval from the Vatican. Although he proposed coordinating a three-way call between him, The Daily Wire, and Lighthouse Immersive officials, he declined to follow through when The Daily Wire insisted the call be recorded and on the record.
Scripta Maneant subsequently threatened to sue The Daily Wire for defamation.
Speno said she raised her concerns to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, who told her he would report the allegations to the Secretariat of State. Cardinal Farrell did not respond to a request for comment. On November 7, Pope Francis met privately with Nicolini, according to the Holy See Press Office Bulletin. It is not known what the two discussed.
Related: Italian Firm Denies Claims It Peddled Rights To Priceless Vatican Art After Daily Wire Report