‘Refalo’s Preti’ wheeled out for MUZA opening, then stored back again

Mattia Preti’s ‘Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream’, acquired on former minister’s say-so, given a brief showing in the newly-opened MUZA museum

Mattia Preti’s ‘Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream’
Mattia Preti’s ‘Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream’

A Preti masterpiece whose acquisition was put in doubt by Heritage Malta insiders was given a rare airing in the newly-opened MUZA museum, before being placed back in Heritage Malta’s reserve collection storage.

Mattia Preti’s ‘Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream’ was acquired in 2017 on former Gozo minister Anton Refalo’s direct request in a Sotheby’s auction for the princely sum of $401,211 (€371,233) – despite Heritage Malta, the national agency responsible for national heritage and works of art, expressing its opinion that it would not have considered purchasing it.

Now, the Labour MP – himself a Preti connoisseur and collector – is chairman of Heritage Malta after not being given the Gozo ministry following re-election in 2017. So the Preti masterpiece, originally acquired for the as-yet unopened Gozo Museum in Rabat, was exhibited during the opening of the MUZA museum of fine arts in Valletta. The artwork, whose acquisition price was as much as the entire value of acquisitions by Heritage Malta made since 2014, is now back in storage.

It was previously exhibited for the first time at the Gozo ministry during Republic Day in 2017. Still, Refalo’s critics in Gozo poured scorn over the fate of the artwork. “You have to consider that this was truly his vanity purchase… after all the funds were sourced from the Gozo ministry budget,” one Labour delegate told MaltaToday. “Now it got its ‘exhibition’ but the Gozo museum is nowhere near completion.”

The price tag for the Preti had already raised eyebrows at both Heritage Malta and the finance ministry, which had to evaluate the necessity and value of the artwork before the purchase.

The painting, purchased from Sotheby’s, was estimated to sell at between $200,000 and $300,000, ending up going to Heritage Malta for $396,500.

Refalo was said to have lobbied uncompromisingly for the painting when initial doubts were expressed on the acquisition.

The bid for the Preti masterpiece, painted in the early part of the 1670s, was made over the phone and purchased through Sotheby’s from a private collection in London.

It remains one of the largest single purchases by a Maltese ministry for any one painting. Heritage Malta’s own list of acquisitions since 2014 is of €388,000 alone, and that includes the €75,000 acquisition for a Preti self-portrait last year.

Refalo had admitted that Heritage Malta “would not have considered its purchase” considering its price and the number of Pretis already in its collection. But the former minister had said that since this piece was earmarked for the Gozo Museum collection, which does not hold any Preti painting, “such painting would therefore certainly feature prominently in the Gozo museum storyline.”

The painting was eventually purchased for $320,000, which increased to $396,500 when taking into consideration taxes and premiums.

Delivery and insurance cost an additional $4,711.