The story of the long-lost Caravaggio painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes (1607), which was discovered in an attic in 2014, just abruptly ended. Expected to fetch as much as $171 million at auction this week, the painting had the entire art world watching. In a last minute move however, Marc Labarbe Auctions in Toulouse, France, cancelled the planned auction after receiving a private offer that they simply could not refuse.
According to La Tribune de l’Art, the mysterious buyer is a private collector and has plans to show the work at major museums. The auction house’s press release assured that the buyer’s identity and final price will remain undisclosed but that “the painting will consequently be leaving French soil.”
“We received an offer that could not be ignored and which we communicated to the owners of the painting,” said Eric Turquin in a statement. Turquin is an Old Masters dealer and appraiser who had been involved in the authentication of the painting. “The fact that the offer came from someone close to an important museum convinced the sellers to accept.”
Despite the work’s controversy around its authentication, it carried an estimate of €100-150 million. In a rather odd move, it was being sold without a reserve, or minimum price.
“We had everything organized to make the auction a grand event open to the public but, our responsibility is to accept the decision of the sellers, our clients,” commented Labarbe.
Labarbe had discovered the painting in 2014, in a dark and deserted attic. After cleaning its surface with a wet rag, Labarbe revealed a dramatic painting of the biblical tale of Judith brutally murdering Holofernes. It was quickly taken to Turquin, who then identified the piece as a lost work of Caravaggio, and only the 66th one in existence. The work was ultimately revealed by the French Ministry of Culture in 2016 and a 30-month export ban on the work was promptly put in place. The painting has undergone great examination since then as well as some restoration efforts by the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France.
“The time has come,” said Labarbe, “for our Judith to recover the rank that oblivion had denied her for awhile: that of a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of all time.”
The debate about the work’s authenticity and attribution to Caravaggio is still alive, however. When the work was being shown in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera, where the attribution was presented with an asterisk, a board member resigned out of anger. Some specialists believe that the work is in fact a copy by one of his followers, Louis Finson.
Turquin, on the other hand, “never once had a moment of doubt” about the painting’s attribution, as per the auction catalogue. “The incredible strength of Judith’s expression, the sensuality of her mouth, the energy of her movement, the opulence of the red curtain that works as the backdrop to the murder scene could only belong to the greatest of all painters, Caravaggio.”