Gozo minister Anton Refalo mum over his private Preti collection

Minister who acquired overpriced $400,000 Preti for Gozo museum will not answer whether he should reveal value of his private collection in his parliamentary declaration of assets

‘Minister of art’: Anton Refalo’s personal art collection and interest in trading merits disclosure in his annual declaration of assets
‘Minister of art’: Anton Refalo’s personal art collection and interest in trading merits disclosure in his annual declaration of assets

Gozo minister Anton Refalo is refusing to reveal the fiscal value of an extensive, personal art collection which he has stored in one of his many residences in Gozo, when the extent of this wealth could merit being declarable in parliamentary records.

Refalo was asked what insurance cover he had requested for his art collection, which includes some masters such as Mattia Preti, as well as other unique and well-known artists.

While ministers are expected to fill in annual declarations of assets, the declaration is traditionally taken to include immovable property and financial assets.

Questions put to his communications coordinator and ministry consultant yesterday made reference to whether Refalo’s art collection, contents of which are known to this newspaper, should now be declared in his annual asset declaration.

Refalo’s collection is well known locally to collectors of art. In one account of his assiduous hoarding, Refalo was noted purchasing a Mattia Preti sketch of a figure from the ceiling of St John’s Cathedral, purchased for Lm30,000 (approx.. €69,900). In 2010, he acquired the desk of former Nationalist prime minister George Borg Olivier for €25,000.

Ministers or MPs are not requested to declare personal luxury items in their declarations of assets, which comprise immoveable properties, shares and banking deposits, company directorships and financial interests, and other earnings such as honoraria, their incomes and any loans.

But the acquisition and exchange of artwork in Malta is a business unto itself, which like property, often employs the ‘speculation’ of appraisers and historians to bump up values.

The $400,000 Preti masterpiece which Anton Refalo’s ministry acquired for the Gozo museum
The $400,000 Preti masterpiece which Anton Refalo’s ministry acquired for the Gozo museum

Refalo was also asked by this newspaper to explain how he financed his purchase of works of art, and to list the works of art he owned apart from those by Mattia Preti, and when he last purchased a work of art from a foreign auction or source.

Last week, MaltaToday reported that Refalo had purchased a Mattia Preti painting in a Sotheby’s auction for the princely sum of $401,211 (€371,233) using the Gozo ministry’s budget, 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.

The spend, which includes the delivery to the as-yet unopened Gozo Museum in Rabat, almost totals the entire value of acquisitions by Heritage Malta made since 2014.

Paintings were available on the market which were far cheaper than the painting indicated for purchase by the Gozo ministry: Sotheby’s was indeed estimating to sell the painting between $200,000 and $300,000, but ended up selling it to the Gozo ministry for $396,500. 

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

Property-rich minister

Anton Refalo’s ministerial declarations garnered particular attention for the long list of properties he has acquired over the years.

In recent years, he has insisted that he has declared all rental income in his ministerial declaration to parliament. According to his tax returns, in 2013 he declared €13,500 in rental income and a property maintenance reduction of €2,700. From tax returns dating since 2008, this was the only year in which Refalo declared rental income in his tax return, as provided to this newspaper by the parliament.

The rental income is related to part of a large number of properties he declared in his 2013 parliamentary declarations – no less than 16, comprising of at least 11 apartments in Gozo as well as two others in Malta, apart from various other residences, offices, and land.

Refalo has refused to declare whether he had rented out any property before 2012, and to explain from which properties his €13,500 rental income derived in 2013 – when he was made a minister.

In his 2015 declaration, Refalo said that in 2014 he registered €7,200 rental income.

Refalo has in the past said that up until 2012, the properties were in the hands of his parents, up until the death of his father at the start of 2013, when he inherited the properties. “From then on, these rents were declared for tax, and the tax due was paid. This rental income was also declared in ministerial declarations I submitted from 2013 onwards.”

Refalo has also declared a total of €693,000 in loans in his last parliamentary declaration in 2015.

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