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Thwarted sale of a prized Sorolla reveals a plot to sell seized Malaya paintings

Andrés Liétor (foreground) and Carlos Sánchez (right) at trial.
Andrés Liétor (foreground) and Carlos Sánchez (right) at trial. / SUR
  • A painting by Joaquín Sorolla, valued at three million euros, has been reclaimed by the provincial court after police were alerted to its imminent sale at an arts fair in New York last year

A painting by one of Spain's most sought-after artists and the fight between two of Juan Antonio Roca's former partners over the remains of the spoils from the Marbella planning corruption scandal have brought to light another plot: hiding from the courts a large part of the art seized during 'Operation Malaya'. The spoils are considerable and are valued at millions of euros.

The conspiracy began to be exposed in November last year in New York. At The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), oil painting 'Antes de la corrida' by Joaquín Sorolla in 1898, was up for sale, valued at three million euros. However, there was one person who demanded that the operation be suspended and that in the event of a sale taking place that the money obtained be handed over to him. This was Luis José Liétor, son of the businessman convicted in the Malaya case, Andrés Liétor. He was making the claim on behalf of the company CCF21, the supposed owner of the work.

CCF21 was one of the companies whose activity came to light during the investigation into the corruption scandal. Its owners, Andrés Liétor and Carlos Sánchez, developed multiple businesses in Marbella in partnership with Juan Antonio Roca. Liétor and Sánchez were sentenced to four and a half years in prison for prevarication, bribery, money laundering and embezzlement and were made to pay multi-million-euro fine. The relationship between the two partners ended badly and the New York episode exposed the dispute between them.

The painting reached the gallery through an intermediary, Julián de la Cierva, who initially claimed to be the owner but later admitted that he was acting on behalf of Carlos Sánchez. The gallery owner, after checking the documentation provided by the latter, returned the painting to him. However, as Liétor continued to call the art gallery to try to claim the work, the gallery owner went to the police and the plot started to unravel.

'Antes de la corrida' by Joaquín Sorolla, painted in 1898.

'Antes de la corrida' by Joaquín Sorolla, painted in 1898. / SUR

The police called both De la Cierva and Sánchez to testify. The latter said he had been the owner of the painting since 1988 after receiving it as part-payment for a property. He said that in 2007, a year after the start of 'Operation Malaya', the Cordoba businessman Rafael Sánchez (known as Sandokan) asked him to lend him some paintings to pay off a debt, which he agreed to do. According to Sánchez, the works were on display in a Sandokan property when they were seized by police.

His version differs substantially from the one reflected in the court orders, however. In November 2008, the investigating judge learned from a witness that Carlos Sánchez had been in charge of a series of manoeuvres in order to raise money for Roca's family and avoid it being seized by the courts. The transfer of paintings to Sandokan, therefore, was ultimately intended to help Roca.

Later, when the paintings were returned to the custody of Sánchez, he sold them without receiving any judicial authorisation, as he admitted to the police - all except the Sorolla painting, whose sale was thwarted in New York. Sánchez claims not to remember to whom he sold four paintings of great value which are now unaccounted for but are being pursued by the Malaga provincial court which has also requested the transfer of the Sorolla painting from the Spanish Embassy in Belgium.

Sánchez has always maintained that the paintings were his property but in a document signed on 28 September, the Public Prosecutor Juan Carlos López Caballero refers to them as "property of Juan Antonio Roca".