Parma: Italian tax police said on Saturday that they had seized works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, and other well known artists, in a crackdown on assets hidden by the disgraced founder of the collapsed dairy company Parmalat.
Authorities estimated the 19 masterpieces stashed away in attics and basements were valued at some $150 million.
Parma Prosecutor Gerardo Laguardia said that, based on wiretapped phone conversations, officials believed at least one of the paintings hidden by Calisto Tanzi was about to be sold.
"We suspected some people, we followed them and we got lucky. We learned that there were negotiations under way to sell one of the paintings - Monet's one. We followed the lead until we found the person who was hiding the masterpieces," Laguardia said.
Police showed some of the paintings to journalists on Saturday.
Among the masterpieces was a pencil on paper portrait of a ballerina by Degas, two Van Goghs, including a depiction of a trunk of a willow tree and a still life, a watercolour by Cezanne and a pencil drawing by Modigliani.
Tax police official Massimo said some of the paintings were carefully wrapped for protection, but that other paintings, including a Picasso, were left open in the store room.
Bologna-based tax Police Colonel Piero Iovino told The Associated Press by telephone that investigators believed the entire batch of paintings, watercolours and drawings were due to be sold.
The prospective buyer was a Russian, possibly living in Italy, Iovino said.
No arrests were announced as part of the art seizure.
Tax police said Parma prosecutors are opening an investigation into the alleged concealment of assets in Parmalat's bankruptcy case.
Parmalat, the dairy conglomerate, grew from a small dairy distributor in Parma to a diversified, multi-national food company by 1990, but collapsed in 2003 under 14 (b) billion euros of debt - eight times what it had previously acknowledged - in what remains Europe's largest corporate bankruptcy.
Many small investors who lost their life savings were among some 40,000 defrauded bondholders.
Italian courts have already ruled that Tanzi bore the brunt of responsibility for the collapse.
Tanzi was convicted by a Milan court last year of market-rigging and other charges in one of several investigations. He is currently on trial for alleged fraudulent bankruptcy.
Tanzi has blamed the banks for the labyrinth of deals that helped swell the company to a global empire with operations in more than 30 countries, but also led to the company's collapse.
For years after the collapse, Tanzi was rumoured to have had a hidden treasure horde somewhere.
On November 29, a state TV show alleged that Tanzi had hidden a collection of artwork to try to shelter himself from the effects of the looming collapse of Parmalat.
Tanzi told reporters the next day, on the sidelines of his current trial in Parma, that he did not have a secret cache of paintings, repeating his ongoing dismissal of reports that he had assets squirreled away.
A lawyer who represents Tanzi and serves as his spokesman didn't answer calls on Saturday.