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The race to snap up a lost Caravaggio

The Crowning of Thorns could sell for £75m

In the “high-stakes world of Old Masters hunting”, a “sleeper” means a lost masterpiece, says Willem Marx in The Wall Street Journal. Last March a Madrid auction house was hoping for opening bids of just £1,250 for The Crowning of Thorns, a humble oil on canvas attributed to the workshop of Spanish artist José de Ribera. Within days, private bids of £8.5m were flying in. The art world’s “tight circle of Old Master aficionados” had concluded that the painting was in fact a missing Caravaggio – one of just 60 or so in existence. (The Italian artist signed only one painting.)

Like Caravaggio, Ribera favoured a style known as tenebrism, emphasising the contrast between light and dark. The painting had hung unrecognised in a family home for decades. Only when Italian academic and Caravaggio expert Maria Cristina Terzaghi received a snap of the auction lot on WhatsApp did its secret come out. She jumped on a plane at once to see it. The auction was put on hold and scientists will now use x-rays and infrared reflectography to examine the work’s hidden layers, testing the canvas and paint pigments.

Art historians think The Crowning of Thorns, if genuine, could sell for more than £75m. “That would make it one of the most expensive Old Master paintings in history.” Spain’s culture ministry convened a midnight meeting to bar this “asset of cultural interest” from leaving the country. A nation holds its breath. “What is the value of a canvas and some oil? It’s nothing,” one dealer says. “It’s about the creation.”

Read the full article here (paywall).