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Painting that was nearly sold for €1,500 could be Caravaggio worth €50m

Sam Jones in Madrid and Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
·3-min read

Before it was pulled from sale, lot 229, a small but luminous oil painting of the scourged Christ attributed to the circle of the 17th-century Spanish artist José de Ribera, had been due to go under the hammer in Madrid on Thursday with a guide price of €1,500 (£1,300).

Closer inspection, however, has raised suspicions that the Crowning with Thorns may be the rather more valuable work of the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, leading the Spanish government to impose an export ban on the painting.

The canvas, which measures 111cm by 86cm, is now being studied by experts to determine its authorship. The possible misattribution may be understandable: Ribera, the son of a shoemaker, studied in Rome and was a noted follower of Caravaggio and an admirer of his use of chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.

Spain’s culture ministry said it had moved quickly to place a precautionary export ban on the painting after receiving a call from experts at the Prado on Tuesday. Specialists at the museum said there was “sufficient stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it could be an original Caravaggio.

The ministry agreed to the ban at an emergency meeting on Wednesday and notified the auction house, Ansorena, which withdrew the painting from Thursday evening’s auction.

“Given the speed at which all this has been happening, we now need a thorough technical and scientific study of the painting in question,” said a source at the ministry. “There needs to be an academic debate about whether the Caravaggio attribution is plausible and accepted by the scientific community.”

Some are already convinced. The Italian art critic and MP Vittorio Sgarbi said he had recognised the painting as a Caravaggio last month after an artist friend and art history professor showed him a picture.

“I see it and immediately realise that the work is by Caravaggio and think that with the help of funding I can get it back to Italy,” Sgarbi told Italian media on Thursday. “Its price could be around €100m-€150m if you sell it privately, and €50m if you sell it to a museum such as Prado.”

Maria Cristina Terzaghi, an art history professor at the University of Rome and an expert on Caravaggio, also said she believed that the painting was 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 picture of Salome with the head of John the Baptist in the royal palace in Madrid.”

Terzaghi said the work “closely resembled” the painting Caravaggio made during the first part of his time in Naples.

But not everyone agrees. “It’s not a Caravaggio,” Nicola Spinosa, one of the top scholars of 17th century Italian painting, told il Corriere della Sera. “In my opinion the painting is a high-quality Caravaggesque.”

The Prado, which was alerted to the issue on Monday, said none of its experts had been able to inspect the painting in person since it was withdrawn from the auction. But it is possible that the museum’s specialists could be called on should the Madrid regional government decide to declare the work a cultural heritage item, which would strengthen its legal protection against being sold.

A spokesperson for Ansorena said: “Different experts are studying the picture to determine who painted it but I have no more information. In any case, the picture has been placed under an export bar and cannot leave Spain.”

The painting is not the only possible Caravaggio to turn up over recent years. In 2014 a picture described as a lost masterpiece by the Italian artist was found under an old mattress in the attic of a house in the French city of Toulouse. Five years later it was bought by a foreign collector two days before it was due to be auctioned.

The art expert Eric Turquin – who authenticated the painting showing the beheading of the general Holofernes by Judith – said it was worth between €100m and €150m, although several Italian specialists had doubts about the canvas.