Sunday 25 February 2018

Family finds lost €120m Old Master in attic of home

Auctioneer Marc Labarbe presents the recently discovered ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, thought to have been painted by Italian master Caravaggio, to the media in Paris yesterday
Auctioneer Marc Labarbe presents the recently discovered ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, thought to have been painted by Italian master Caravaggio, to the media in Paris yesterday

Henry Samuel in Paris

A leaky roof led a French family to stumble across a painting thought to be a long- lost Caravaggio worth €120m .

The exceptionally well-preserved tableau had remained hidden in the attic of their home outside Toulouse, southwestern France, untouched for more than 150 years since an ancestor brought it back to France from his campaigns abroad as an officer of Napoleon's army.

Experts have already dubbed the incredible find a "momentous occasion" in European art history and the "most important painting by far" to have emerged by one of the great masters in modern times.

'Judith Beheading Holofernes', thought to be painted by Caravaggio - real name Michelangelo Merisi - in Rome around 1604-1605, was presented to the world yesterday in a Paris gallery.

"This particular lighting, this energy typical of Caravaggio without corrections, with a sure hand and the pictorial material make this painting an original," said art expert and gallery owner Eric Turquin.

Experts concur there is no way it could be a copy, given the bold, spontaneous brushstrokes known as "alla brava" in Italian - Caravaggio never sketched first - and the fact that the painter made some clear corrections to hands, something that a careful copier would not do.

Caravaggio painted two versions of the biblical scene in which Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes to defend her beleaguered city. The first version, painted in Rome, is currently on display at the National Gallery of Ancient Art, at Pallazo Barberini.

However, the second version, which was painted in Naples, went missing without a trace 400 years ago - until, if it proves genuine, a family on the outskirts of Toulouse unearthed the painting in an attic they didn't even know existed until they forced open a door while inspecting a leak in April 2014.

Their local auctioneer, Marc Labarde, recognised the work as Italian 17th century.

The right-side had a water stain due to the leak, but was in fact in excellent condition. He sent a photo to Mr Turquin, an expert in Old Masters, who instantly thought it could be a great painting.

After two years of analysis, Mr Turquin admitted that there would be "more controversies than expertise" and "no consensus" over its provenance, with one Caravaggio specialist, Mina Gregori, already questioning its authenticity.

But the painting is of sufficient interest in the eyes of the Louvre for the French culture ministry to pronounce it a "national treasure", meaning it cannot be exported for 30 months while French museums consider whether to stump up the funds to buy it.

"This recently rediscovered work of great artistic value, which could be identified as a lost composition of Caravaggio, known so far by indirect evidence, merits being retained in the territory as a very important milestone in the work of Caravaggio, while its attribution is researched," wrote the ministry.

The mysterious second version was mentioned by the Flemish painter Frans Pourbus the Younger in a letter penned in 1607 in which he claimed to have seen the famous work in the studio of the painter Louis Finson.

Finson mentions the painting in his 1617 will. That was the last anyone heard of the tableau.

Irish Independent

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