Painting that was nearly sold for €1,500 could be Caravaggio worth €50m | Spain
Before it was taken off sale, Lot 229, a small but luminous oil painting of the Scourged Christ attributed to the circle of 17th-century Spanish artist José de Ribera, was due to go under the hammer with a guide in Madrid on Thursday Price of € 1,500.
On closer inspection, however, the suspicion was raised that the crowning of thorns could be the more valuable work of the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, which led the Spanish government to impose an export ban on the painting.
The canvas, which measures 111 x 86 cm, is currently being examined by experts to determine its authorship. The possible mis-attribution may be understandable: Ribera, the son of a shoemaker, studied in Rome and was a well-known supporter of Caravaggio and an admirer of his use of chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.
The Spanish Ministry of Culture said it had moved quickly to impose a precautionary export ban on the painting after receiving a call from experts at the Prado on Tuesday. Museum experts said there was “enough stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it might be an original Caravaggio.
The ministry agreed to the ban at an emergency meeting on Wednesday and informed the auction house Ansorena that the painting had been withdrawn from auction on Thursday evening.
“Given the speed with which all of this has happened, we now need a thorough technical and scientific study of the painting in question,” a ministry source said. “There has to be an academic debate about whether the Caravaggio attribution is plausible and accepted by the scientific community.”
Some are already convinced. Italian art critic and MP Vittorio Sgarbi said he recognized the painting as Caravaggio last month after a picture was shown to him by an artist friend and art history professor.
“I see it and I immediately realize that the work is from Caravaggio and I think that with the help of the funding I can bring it back to Italy,” Sgarbi told the Italian media on Thursday. “The price could be anywhere from 100 to 150 million euros if you sell it privately and 50 million euros if you sell it to a museum like Prado.”
The Crowning of Thorns is very similar to a painting Caravaggio painted in the first half of his time in Naples, says one expert. Photo: Ansorena.com
Maria Cristina Terzaghi, professor of art history at the University of Rome and an expert on Caravaggio, also said she believed the painting was made by the Italian.
“It’s him,” she said. “The composition of the red in the purple mantle that covers Christ is the same as the image of Salome with the head of John the Baptist in the royal palace in Madrid.”
Terzaghi said the work was “very similar” to the painting Caravaggio painted in the first half of his time in Naples.
But not everyone agrees. “It’s not a Caravaggio,” Nicola Spinosa, one of the best scholars of 17th century Italian painting, told il Corriere della Sera. “In my opinion the painting is a high quality Caravaggesque.”
The Prado, made aware of the problem on Monday, said none of its experts have been able to personally inspect the painting since it was withdrawn from auction. However, it is possible that the museum’s specialists will be called in should the Madrid regional government decide to declare the work a cultural heritage, which would strengthen the legal protection against sale.
An Ansorena spokesman said, “Various experts are examining the picture to see who painted it, but I have no further information. In any case, the picture was placed under an export bar and cannot leave Spain. “
The painting isn’t the only possible Caravaggio that has surfaced in recent years. In 2014, an image was found under an old mattress in the attic of a house in the French city of Toulouse, which the Italian artist described as a lost masterpiece. Five years later, it was bought by a foreign collector two days before it was auctioned.
Art expert Eric Turquin, who authenticated the painting showing the beheading of General Holofernes by Judith, said it was worth between 100 and 150 million euros, although several Italian specialists had doubts about the canvas.