VATICAN CITY — The Italian company accused in a bombshell Daily Wire report of improperly selling licensing rights to the Holy See’s vast trove of priceless art denied wrongdoing in a statement Wednesday even as reports suggested Pope Francis is looking into the matter.
Scripta Maneant, which a New York attorney accused of misrepresenting itself as the custodian of rights to art including masterworks by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, denied that it had ever claimed the authority to broker rights to images and video of the art owned by Vatican Museums. The denial came after the Italian press picked up the story and preceded statements from other key subjects of the unfolding story.
“Scripta Maneant has never claimed and never will claim to be able to assign any image or any image license to anyone, either for this kind of activity or for activities of a more purely editorial nature,” Scripta Maneant CEO Giorgio Armaroli said in a statement released hours after the Daily Wire report.
Armaroli said that his company, which in 2015 secured rights to Vatican art for a high-end book that sold for $22,000, had entered into talks with New York-based Museum Masters International (MMI), which sought rights to Vatican art for a virtual exhibition. MMI was at the time represented by attorney Sarah Speno, who told The Daily Wire she came to question whether Scripta Maneant had the Vatican’s permission to broker licensing rights.
The Daily Wire reported that correspondence between Speno and Scripta Maneant from over the summer revealed that the Italian company claimed to be working with Vatican Museums Vice Director Monsignor Paolo Nicolini when it sought an $82,500 advance from MMI for a mid-six-figures deal. But when Speno pressed for assurance that Scripta Maneant was indeed authorized to broker rights to the artworks, her concerns were not put to rest.
“How can we ask the Vatican on Monday to authorize us to transfer the rights of Sistina virtually for the world (their most precious and sacred asset) to a defaulting customer?” Armaroli wrote in a September 10 email obtained by The Daily Wire. “The Vatican now … asks us not to disclose the authorization letter to MMI until payment has been made … therefore I really don’t understand how to fix the problem without your making such a payment.”
Armaroli’s reaction heightened Speno’s suspicions, eventually resulting in the deal being scuttled.
The Daily Wire revealed that at least one other company had used images and video of Vatican art for an “immersive” exhibit after striking a deal with Scripta Maneant. But Nicolini told The Daily Wire he had never signed off on allowing Scripta Maneant to act as an agent of the Vatican in such deals.
In his statement, Armaroli said the aborted deal with MMI would have involved his company’s close involvement and indicated that it would have been subject to other unspecified “agreements,” although he provided no claim or evidence of an ongoing contractual relationship with the Vatican.
“In the present case, we were to produce a series of videos intended to give rise to the above-mentioned virtual exhibition,” he said. “These videos are then marketed by us through a ‘license,’ which stipulates that the use be made according to very detailed agreements.”
As Armaroli was releasing his statement, MMI chief Marilyn Goldberg released a statement of her own disavowing Speno. Goldberg said MMI fired Speno after the attorney advised MMI not to go through with the deal and said she intended to go public with her suspicions about Scripta Maneant.
“We prepared to pay the $82,500 advance refundable guarantee, [but] Ms. Speno advised us NOT to pay, because she stated that it (document submitted by Scripta Maneant, which were referenced in correspondence as ‘proof of Vatican approval’) was not an authentic signature, and that it was a fraud.”
That prompted MMI to drop Speno, who then made good on her pledge to go public with her suspicions.
“We immediately terminated her because we never approved any negativity against Scripta Maneant, Vatican Museum, or the Vatican,” Goldberg said.
The Vatican has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Speno says she acted because she believes the cash-strapped Holy See may have been deprived of substantial revenue, potentially for years. On Wednesday, the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero confirmed that a November meeting between Pope Francis and Nicolini had been prompted by a Daily Wire inquiry and concerned the sale of rights to Vatican art. Il Messaggero also reported that the Vatican is conducting an investigation into the matter, although another outlet, Corriere della Sera, quoted a Vatican Museums source saying there is no investigation ongoing.
Speno told The Daily Wire she had simply performed due diligence while serving as MMI’s attorney and sought to ensure that her client was legally obtaining rights to high-resolution digital images of artworks owned by the Vatican.
“As with any jurisdiction or country, there are always ‘bad actors’ to avoid, who pretend they own legal rights for exploitation commercially,” Speno said.
Scripta Maneant and MMI now seem to be working together to “exculpate Scripta Maneant from any exposure to the Vatican,” the attorney said.
“It is also clear that MMI/Marilyn Goldberg believes, today, that collaborating with Scripta Maneant, clearly a ‘bad actor,’ is in their best interests,” Speno said, adding that Scripta Maneant has still never demonstrated it is authorized to license images of Vatican artworks.