For nearly 40 years, Jaime Botín, a member of the wealthy family that runs Spain's Santander Bank, has owned Pablo Picasso's Head of a Young Woman. Botín kept the painting on his private yacht docked on Spain's Mediterranean Coast.
The 1906 work is not one of the Spanish master's most famous paintings, but it is from an important year in Picasso's life, and it has been valued at up to $28 million.
Botín's son Alfonso took the boat for a sail last month to the French island of Corsica, and that's where the trouble began. French customs officials boarded the yacht and seized the painting.
"We found the artwork on the boat already packaged up," French customs official Vincent Guivarch told reporters. "It appeared ready to be shipped."
Authorities believe the Botíns were planning to send the painting to Switzerland, to sell it there. But Spain considers the Picasso a "national treasure," a cultural asset that can't be taken out of the country.
This case has raised questions about rich art collectors' rights to do what they want with paintings they own versus government efforts to protect what they consider to be part of the national heritage.
"The law says that if the artwork is more than 100 years old and has national cultural significance, the owner needs to apply for permission to take it abroad or sell it," says José Castillo, a national heritage expert at Spain's University of Granada.
Botín has been denied such permission for years. Spanish officials say he finally gave up and was trying to smuggle the painting through Corsica.
Botín's lawyer says Spanish law shouldn't even apply, because the yacht where the painting was kept sails under a British flag, no matter where it's docked.
Spanish police flew to Corsica on Tuesday, where they picked up the painting from French customs officials. The painting was then taken to Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum on Tuesday evening and will remain there until its legal status is resolved.