A painting thought to be a “lost masterpiece” by Italian painter Caravaggio has been bought two days before it was due to go under the hammer in France.
Judith and Holofernes, which was found under an old mattress in the attic of a house in the French city of Toulouse, was snapped up by a foreign buyer, according to the auction house selling it.
Art expert Eric Turquin, who authenticated the painting, said it was worth between €100 and €150 million (up to R2.433 billion), although several Italian specialists have doubts about the canvas.
Turquin, France’s leading authority on Old Masters paintings, staked his reputation on the work being the fiery artist’s lost Judith and Holofernes.
The painting depicting a grisly biblical scene of the beautiful Jewish widow Judith beheading a sleeping Assyrian general was to be auctioned in Toulouse yesterday.
But before bidding could start a foreign buyer “close to a major museum” stepped in, said Marc Labarbe, the local auctioneer who discovered the painting when he was asked to value some “old things in the attic” five years ago.
“The fact that the offer comes from a collector close to a major museum convinced the seller to accept [the offer],” he said.
Price kept secret
Labarbe said he could not reveal the name of the buyer or the price paid because of a confidentiality agreement. But he confirmed that the painting – dated to 1606 – will leave France after an export bar, which classed the canvas as a “national treasure”, was not renewed in November.
Turquin had earlier told AFP that he was sure the painting was by the volatile and violent genius, who created it while he was on the run from a death sentence for murder.
“Not only is it a Caravaggio, but of all the Caravaggios that are known today, this is one of the great pictures,” he insisted. “The painting is in an extraordinarily good state, much better than the Caravaggios I have seen in Naples.”
Although experts are united in hailing the quality of the work, a minority of specialists – particularly in Italy – have their doubts. They believe it is a copy made by the Flemish artist Louis Finson, who worked alongside Caravaggio as he painted.
But Turquin is adamant it is the original from 1606 whose existence was first noted in letters between Italian dukes and art dealers four centuries ago. He is more convinced than ever since the canvas was cleaned in January, a process that took three weeks.
On top of X-rays, the cleaning “has shown that the painting was changed a lot as it was painted, with lots of retouching. That proves it is an original.”