It led one art historian to resign from a gallery advisory committee in outrage and now it could sell at auction for up to £140 million. Caravaggio is an artist who has always sparked controversy and now a painting said to be by his hand has the art world divided over its attribution.
The tale began when auctioneer Marc Labarbe was called to appraise a large canvas in a home in Toulouse, France in 2014. The painting of Judith beheading Holofernes was one of the only things remaining after the house was robbed, presumably because the burglars considered it worthless. Two years of authentication by expert art historians and scientific analysis mostly undertaken at the Louvre Museum’s laboratories ensued.
The work was shrouded in secrecy and kept under export ban for 30 months to allow investigations to be undertaken and to give the Louvre time to decide whether it wished to acquire it. The Louvre declined to purchase it. In April 2016, the painting was finally revealed to world media and declared a national treasure by the French culture minister.
A few months later, the painting was displayed in public for the first time at the Pinoteca di Brera in Milan next to Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (1605). Art historian and member of Brera’s advisory committee, Giovanni Agosti, resigned in protest over the “uncritical” display of the work, which was “not only private property but for sale”.
Despite the lengthy authentication process, doubts still remain as to the attribution. Paris-based Old Masters expert, Eric Turquin, is convinced it is authentic. He believes the Louvre’s rejection of the work has more to do with its limited acquisitions budget and the fact it already has three exceptional Caravaggios. He came to London to make the case for the work, which is on display at the Colnaghi Gallery from 1-9 March 2019.
The work will be auctioned on 27 June in Toulouse for an estimated £90-£140million but as Turquin himself pointed out, its sale will not solve the mystery of its attribution categorically. “The poor buyer of this picture will not enjoy it… He will have to have a special mailbox for all the emails”, Turquin remarked.