Turkish police have arrested two textile businessmen who attempted to sell what is thought to be a long-lost work by Flemish master painter Anthony van Dyck.

In an elaborate undercover operation, policemen posed as buyers and negotiated a price of 14 million lira (£3.2 million) for the work, which is believed to have been smuggled from Europe. They agreed to meet with the businessmen, Malkhaz Makharadze and Zahir Huseinov, in a luxury hotel room in Istanbul’s Topkapi neighbourhood. When they arrived to collect the sale proceeds, the men fell directly into the trap that had been laid for them.

The operation was organised after the Istanbul Directorate of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime received a tip-off about the theft of the painting from a private European collection. Following their arrest, Makharadze and Huseinov said they had bought the painting from a Georgian gang for US$20,000 (£13,889).

An ownership tussle for the painting is ongoing. After it was stolen, it allegedly passed through Russia and wound up in the hands of Georgian citizen Giorgi Abashidze who purchased it 15 years ago in a shop for US$5,000 (£3,472).

Abashidze’s sister, who was recently called in for questioning, told Georgian media that her brother sold it to Makharadze and Huseinov in 2010 for US$37,000 (£25,702). When he failed to receive the full purchase price, Abashidze sued the businessmen but Huseinov insists he and Makharadze hold legal title to the work.

Doubts also persist as to the authenticity of the work. After an initial examination, experts from Istanbul’s Museum of Painting and Sculpture judged it to be a genuine work but this has not been confirmed by Turkish authorities. A final report is being prepared by an expert team at the Mimar Sinan University Fine Arts Faculty.

If it is an authentic van Dyck, the painting could be worth millions but The Art Newspaper says the attribution to the great artist is “optimistic”.