Has a missing £13m Venetian masterpiece gifted to a Scottish museum ended up in the tip?

For a little museum in a small Scottish town, it was an incredible gift – a Venetian masterpiece reportedly worth £13m at today’s values.

Now, academics leading a worldwide search for Paolo Veronese’s Pool of Bethesda are growing increasingly frustrated in the hunt for the missing painting, with concerns it may have been long stolen, or even thrown in the tip.

James Volmer, from a prosperous North East seafaring family which made part of its fortune in whaling, gifted the artwork to the Arbuthnot Museum in Peterhead in 1883, the year before his death in Australia where he pursued further riches in the brewing industry.

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An etching of Paolo Veronese’s Pool of Bethesda, with the original, which once hung in the Arbuthnot Museum in Peterhead, measuring some 6ft by 12ft. PIC: Contributed.

But the whereabouts of the painting has long been a mystery, with Peterhead moving to the centre of the hunt after recent research found the last-known record of the Veronese dated to 1904, when it still hung in the Arbuthnot.

Aberdeenshire Council – formed long after Peterhead Town Council which governed the town at the time – is now delving into records to assist the seach.

But Roderick Home, former Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, who has compiled a long history of the painting, told the Press and Journal he was losing hope the painting would ever be found.

Prof Home said: “It would be astonishing, indeed scandalous, if such a large, important and extremely valuable item had simply disappeared without trace.

“I can understand that it might have been decided at some point to take the picture down from the wall where it had been hanging.

“But even if – God forbid! – it was simply sent to the tip at that point, this ought to have been recorded by both the museum and the town council.

“Similarly if it was stolen – although, given the painting’s size, this would have been a difficult feat to pull off – or transferred, temporarily or permanently, to another home.”

The painting, which weighs a tonne and measures 6ft by 12ft, was acquired by Catherine the Great following an auction in London in 1764. Following a spell in Aberdeen, it sailed to Melbourne with a Robert Black in 1868.Dr Donna Yates, Associate Researcher at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and Associate Professor at Maastricht University, who is an expert in stolen art, said the painting may have left the Arbuthnot Museum for “a perfectly legitimate reason that everyone agreed upon at the time”.

She added: “I believe every museum has objects registered within their catalogue that are simply not present anymore for reasons that no one knows, with the assumption that they were misplaced or swiped as some point in the past, too long ago to do much about.

“But you can’t pocket or misfile a 6ft by 12ft painting. Whatever the context was for its removal, it was something that museum staff or the council knew about at the time. We could find, after this publicity, that the records are clear that the piece was legitimately sold and exists happily and legally somewhere else.”

She said the painting may have been “horribly damaged” and then discarded but that extensive record keeping may not have been in place at the time.

A spokesman for Live Life Aberdeenshire, which runs the museum, said “collective investigations” continued.

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