A masterpiece mystery with the hallmarks of a Dan Brown
A recent discovery of a 'lost' painting has the art world talking, writes Joe O'Shea
It may lack the homicidal monks and fiendish ciphers of The Da Vinci Code. But a real-life art detective story, involving shady art dealers and intrepid academics, has brought to light a "lost" masterpiece, the latest in a string of discoveries that are exciting the art world and the great auction houses of Europe and America.
And this latest find could now re-unite haunting images of Christ and his mother Mary, painted together by a master's hand but separated by an unscrupulous dealer.
A portrait of Christ that sat on the damp wall of an English church for more than half a century has been identified as a painting by the greatest Flemish painter of the early 16th century, Quentin Metsys.
And the story of its discovery, made public this week, has echoes of the finding of our own great lost masterpiece, Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, in Dublin in the early '90s.
The tale of the lost Metsys begins in 2006 when Simon Watney, a conservation adviser to the UK's Church Monuments Society, visited the tiny Church of the Holy Trinity in Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire.
Mr Watney, an expert in early religious statuary, was examining the minor works in the church when an oil painting caught his eye.
"I couldn't get a good look at it . . . but I recognised it as a composition by Van Dyke," said Mr Watney.
He later returned to the church with Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins, an art restorer and a leading Van Dyke authority.
Unfortunately, it was immediately obvious to Ms Stainer-Hutchins that the painting wasn't the genuine article.
It was then that another work stopped the art historians in their tracks.
"It was immediately clear the Van Dyke was an 18th-century copy but then I saw this little portrait of Christ in a horrible, almost plastic-looking frame," said Mr Watney. "I was amazed by the quality and I said straight away, 'This is a Quentin Metsys'."
They also noticed that the painting was, unusually, painted on two horizontal boards. At this point, Ms Stainer-Hutchins made a critical connection.
She remembered having once seen a Metsys portrait of the Virgin Mary that was also painted on two boards.
And now after a year's worth of tests, her initial hunch has been confirmed -- the painting is one part of a greater composition.
Their theory is that a greedy art dealer had cut the complete painting in two to increase his profit margin.
They had discovered the missing half, even though art historians had not guessed that such a thing had existed.
"The condition is amazing considering it has been hanging on a nail on a damp wall for all these years. Anything could have happened to it," said Mr Watney. "This painting is 500 years old and it is beautiful."
The last Metsys portrait to come up for sale brought just under €1m in 2008. And if this portrait of Christ can be re-acquainted with its long lost Mary (currently held in the Fitzwilliam collection of Lady Juliet Tadgell) it could be worth much more.
At the very least, the small church in Bradford-upon-Avon can expect a windfall, and art historians have a new treasure to study.
The lost Metsys is just the latest major work to come to light. Experts from several countries are currently examining a portrait in profile of a young Italian Renaissance princess, bought for just €14,000 in 2007 and attributed to a 19th century German follower of Da Vinci.
However, a hunch on the part of the buyer led him to have the painting forensically examined.
And a Paris laboratory recently discovered that a fingerprint, found on the top left of the picture, was "highly comparable" to one found on da Vinci's work St Jerome, which he painted early in his career when he did not have assistants.
If the small chalk, pen and ink portrait is authenticated as a lost Da Vinci, it could be worth in the region of €110m.
Just last month, the director of a small Dutch museum, who was a laughing stock after claiming to have found a "Van Gogh" for less than €1,000, had the last laugh (posthumously) when the vivid depiction of a Parisian windmill was authenticated as a genuine Vincent Van Gogh.
Dutch collector Dirk Hannema (who had a very dubious reputation as a "discoverer" of lost works until his death in 1984) has been proved right, and the painting is thought to be worth millions.