The story of the lost Caravaggio discovered in a dusty attic in France has recently taken an exciting turn, with its highly-anticipated auctioning planned for this summer. The discovery of the masterpiece brought up the total number of paintings attributed to Caravaggio to 68. As it was unveiled last week at Colnaghi gallery, we reflect on the journey it took from attic to auction in four years.
The painting was discovered in 2014 when auctioneer Marc Labarbe was called to the home of a client in Toulouse, France, to appraise a large canvas. The client’s home had been broken into, with most valuables stolen except for the painting, presumably deemed worthless.
The painting depicts the biblical story of Judith, a young widow in the city of Bethulia, who seduces and then beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes, prompting an end to a siege on her city.
The French government was quick to act as they placed a 30-month export ban on the work while tests were to be carried out to ensure its authenticity.
Two years of authentication later, including long intervals spent in the laboratories of the Louvre Museum in Paris, the work was finally unveiled to the media on April 12 and declared a national treasure by the French culture minister.
Old Master expert Eric Turquin said that “experts, art historians, conservators, restorers and radiologists have weighed in on the painting in the utmost secrecy.” He added that while “there is no consensus, I’m not looking for a consensus. In 2003, there were still criticisms on the Dublin work. Caravaggio is an artist who lends himself to controversy.” Turquin also said that he is “more convinced than ever that the picture is the lost Caravaggio seen by the Flemish painter Frans Pourbus in 1607.”
A few months later in 2016, the work finally went on display to the public for the first time at the Pinoteca di Brera in Milan, next to the institutions very own Caravaggio masterpiece, the Supper at Emmaus (1605). The institution’s director, James Bradburne, said that the exhibition they held, Caravaggio: a Question of Attribution, will allow the public to uniquely assess the controversial attribution for themselves.
This did not come without controversy however, as it lead to the art historian Giovanni Agosti to resign from Brera’s advisory committee in protest against their “uncritical” display of a painting that is “not only private property but for sale”.
Finally, in January of this year, the initial export ban was lifted and the Louvre announced that it will not be purchasing the work. This gave the painting free circulation and prompted experts to begin cleaning and restoration immediately.
A short month later, the work travelled to London to go on display at the Colnaghi gallery from 1-9 March before it returns to Toulouse for the auction this summer. The auction is planned to be without a reserve or any guarantees, and is estimated to sell for €150 million.