In the highest echelons of the art world, collectors dream of stumbling across an unknown painting – only to find that it’s actually a priceless lost work by an old master. Now there’s been quite the sensation around a little-known religious painting, initially up for auction with a reserve price of €1,500, which experts think may be a Michelangelo Caravaggio work worth as much as €150 million.
The Times reports that the sale of the piece was halted by the Spanish government, just a few hours before it was due to go under the hammer on 8 April. In the catalogue accompanying the sale, the Madrid company running the auction listed the painting as Coronation with Thorns, attributing it to a member of José de Ribera’s entourage (a 17th-century Spanish artist best known for his religious and mythological works).
The government had been notified of the painting’s imminent sale earlier that week, which soon sparked the decision to withdraw it from auction. Just in time, Spanish Minister of Culture José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes announced that the painting had been declared ‘not for export… on suspicion it may be a Caravaggio’, adding: ‘The painting is valuable, we hope it’s a Caravaggio’.
The Culture Minister explained that Madrid’s regional authorities should declare the painting a work of cultural interest in order to implement additional safeguarding of the work on Spain’s behalf. Rodríguez Uribes explained that the government had swooped in quickly to block the export of the piece in light of an incident in the 1970s, when a lost Caravaggio that emerged in Seville was taken to the United States. The government added that the process of verification into its authenticity will also soon begin.
The work is thought to be a missing painting by the renowned Italian master that’s believed to have been in Spain for some four centuries. Possibly titled Ecce Homo, it portrays Pontius Pilate showing Christ to a crowd, whose head is bleeding from the crown of thorns before his crucifixion.
While the exact value of the painting remains open to speculation, Italian art historian Vittorio Sgarbi is quoted in the Times as stating: ‘The price could be between €100 and €150 million, if you sell it to a private investor, or €40 or €50 million if you sell it to the Prado Museum.’
Contained among a catalogue of 1,400 works up for auction, it’s not yet known how experts spotted the work. In the run up to the sale, rumours were reportedly flying that the painting was not what it seemed, prompting international collectors and museum specialists to show an unusual interest in the piece.
Professor Maria Cristina Terzaghi from the Roma Tre University – one of the most respected Caravaggio scholars and a modern art history expert – travelled to Madrid last week after hearing from an art buyer acquaintance that the piece was due to go under the hammer. Terzaghi told Spanish newspaper El País. ‘It’s a Caravaggio, I have no doubt’.
Explaining her theory, she noted that the cloak worn by Jesus in the painting had ‘the same quality as the red of [the cloak of] Salome’ in Caravaggio’s painting Salome with the head of John the Baptist, now housed at the Prado Museum in Madrid; while the rendering of Pontius Pilate was ‘reminiscent of the martyred St Peter in Madonna of the Rosary’, another Caravaggio at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
While some experts have countered the theory that the painting is by the famed Italian artist, the Spanish ABC newspaper raised the matter of a 1994 study conducted by the Prado Museum. The study suggested that a lost Caravaggio work which could match the painting’s description is referenced in Spanish documents dating from the 17th century.
Caravaggio paintings are among the most highly coveted masterpieces in the art world today. Back in 2014, a lost Caravaggio work, Judith and Holofernes, was discovered beneath an old mattress in an attic in Toulouse in France. With an estimated worth of a staggering $170 million, the painting was snapped up by an anonymous foreign collector two before it was due to go to auction.
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