1212 GMT January 24, 2021
The painting, 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, the auction house selling it said.
Art expert Eric Turquin – who authenticated the painting – said it was worth between €100m and €150m (up to $170m), although several Italian specialists have doubts about the canvas, theguardian.com reported.
However, Turquin, France’s leading authority on Old Masters paintings, had staked his reputation on the work being Carvaggio’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 on Thursday.
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.
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 would leave France after an export bar, which classed the canvas as a “national treasure,” was not renewed in November.
Turquin had earlier told AFP he was sure the painting was by the volatile and violent genius. “Not only is it a Caravaggio, but of all the Caravaggios that are known today, this is one of the great pictures,” he insisted.
But a minority of specialists have their doubts. They believe it is a copy made by the Flemish artist Louis Finson, who worked alongside Caravaggio.
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,” Turquin said.
A less virtuoso version of the scene by Finson hangs at the Palazzo Zevallos in Naples.
Turquin said the painting marked a turning point in Caravaggio’s development as an artist.
The fiercely original painter had created his first canvas on the theme, the far more formal Judith Beheading Holofernes in 1598, which hangs at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
By 1606 Caravaggio was on the run after being condemned to death for stabbing a man in a street brawl.
Other experts have speculated that Finson could have added his own touches to the canvas after Caravaggio left suddenly for Malta in 1607, where he hoped he might be safer.
The family who owned the painting – who have not been named – believe it may have been brought to France by one of their ancestors, an officer in Napoleon’s army.