The mysterious buyer behind the early 17th-century work billed as a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece, was revealed to be an American billionaire hedge fund manager and art collector. J. Tomilson Hill, former vice chairman of the private equity firm Blackstone, purchased the work days before it was set to go on auction carrying an estimate of $150 million.
The painting, Judith and Holofernes, depicts a biblical scene in which a Jewish widow saves her besieged city by tempting and then beheading an Assyrian general. The work was expected to sell on Thursday in Toulouse, France, for the largest auction price ever seen for an artwork in Europe.
Days before the sale, auctioneers Marc Labarbe and Eric Turquin announced that the work had been sold privately to a non-French collector for an amount they couldn’t refuse, hence cancelling the auction.
According to a source familiar with the sale, the collector is Mr. Hill, who recently retired from Blackstone. Mr. Hill has amassed an impressive collection of contemporary and modern art as well as old masters. He serves on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and earlier this year opened his own private museum, the Hill Art Foundation in New York City.
The final price was undisclosed as per the terms of the sale but the auctioneers said that it was more than the expected auction minimum bid of about 30 million euros. It was announced as well that the work will be lent to major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Hill and his wife Janine have long been great lenders of their collection to major institutions over the years. Most recently, they lent their Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, by Jacopo Pontormo, to the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy, the Morgan Library & Museum and the Getty.,
The work was discovered in Toulouse by Mr. Labarbe, an auctioneer, in a dusty attic. Mr. Turquin, who is a specialist old masters dealer in Paris, worked with Mr. Labarbe to research and conclude its attribution to Caravaggio. The painting has caused much controversy around its authentication. It was catalogued as having been created in Naples in 1607 but has been debated by a number of specialists in the past three years.
Among the adherents of the work’s authenticity are Keith Christiansen, the chairman of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who said that it was “fully consistent with the work of Caravaggio,” with the exception of one part where the brushwork was atypical, suggesting the potential “intervention of a second hand.”
The work was displayed at Colnaghi gallery in London in February, then at Kamel Mennour in Paris and most recently at Adam Williams Fine Art gallery in New York. If it is intact a Caravaggio work, it would be one of six in private hands, out of a total of 69 known in existence.