Spain has hastily imposed an export ban on a little-known painting, following claims that it could be a forgotten Caravaggio (1571-1610). It was due to be sold at auction in Madrid for a starting price of €1,500 (£1,300), but if it is indeed by the Italian master it could fetch up to €150 million (£130 million).
“As to who painted it, different experts are studying the work and right now we have no further information. The painting has been declared ‘not for export’ and will not be able to leave Spain,” explained a spokeswoman for the auction house Ansorena.
Entitled ‘Crowning of Thorns’, the oil painting depicts Jesus Christ just before the crucifixion. Ansorena had attributed lot 229 to a pupil of the Spanish painter and printmaker José de Ribera (1591-1652), who was himself a follower of Caravaggio. During his tumultuous life, Caravaggio produced innovative work that had a profound stylistic impact on the following generation.
Specialists at the Prado Museum contacted Spain’s Ministry of Culture only days before the sale, arguing that there was “sufficient stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it could be a Caravaggio. At first glance the dramatically lit painting is stylistically similar to the artist’s early works. But the surface has been concealed by dirt for centuries, making identification difficult until the Prado can analyse the painting in person.
“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 spokesperson for Spain’s Ministry of Culture.
Some experts have already voiced their support for the new attribution. “It’s him,” declared Professor Maria Cristina Terzaghi of Rome University. “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.”
Italian art critic and MP Vittorio Sgarbi also remarked “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.”
Ultimately Spain’s export ban signifies the beginning of a long scientific and art historical process of identification. “It could be that, in the end, it’s a painting by a disciple of Ribera, as it was said. But, in any case, our decision is very appropriate because the painting is very valuable,” concluded Spain’s culture minister, José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes.
The art law team at Boodle Hatfield previously represented a Claimant in a dispute in relation to breach of contract and negligence against a leading auction house relating to a Caravaggio painting. Read more about the case here.