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Old Masters, new owners: Caravaggio painting to be auctioned

Found in a dusty attic of a house in Toulouse, the lost masterpiece of the Lombardi master is valued at about €150 million (S$229 million).

The 68th known piece of Renaissance painter Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, has been unveiled and is set to be up for auction on Jun 27, 2019, at La Halle aux Grain, Toulouse.

The 400-year-old painting was first discovered sitting in the attic of a house in the French city, before the homeowner called in Marc Labarbe, a Toulouse-based auctioneer, who immediately recognised it as a prominent 17th century masterpiece. Acting upon his intuitions, Labarbe enlisted the help of art appraiser and renown expert of Old Master paintings, Eric Turquin, who studied it in confidence for two years.

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Thankfully, the painting was found to be in a miraculous state of preservation, as indicated by the small audience that have been lucky enough to come across this work of art. A few years shy of its discovery, the painting was even under jeopardy when clumsy thieves broke into the very attic to abscond with other belongings of much lesser value.

Though there have been talks of the artwork’s authenticity, Turquin confirms that it was indeed Caravaggio’s work. His assertions are further buttressed by scientific evidence of the presence of scores of pentimenti – noticeable traces of an earlier painting beneath the layers of paint on the canvas, telling that this was not the work of a simple copy artist.

Said Turquin, unimpressed by piece’s hefty price tag: “There is a revival of the Old Masters, that is clear.” This follows the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” in 2017 for US$450 million (S$610 million).

Caravaggio Judith and Holofernes

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“Judith and Holofernes” portrays the biblical story of Judith, a young widow from Bethulia. Determined to quell the Assyrian siege on her city, the heroine seduces the general Holofernes, before ultimately beheading the man. The story is one which is celebrated and recreated by many artists but never with Caravaggio’s level of dramatic tension.

The piece is almost unbearably violent, a likely reflection of the point in the turbulent life that was Caravaggio’s — at which point he was hiding in the Italian countryside, after having murdered a young man in a sword fight. Masterful use of shadow and light – known as chiaroscuro – was also characteristic of the virtuoso, who was one of the forefathers of the Baroque style of art.

Caravaggio Judith and Holofernes

Unfortunately, Caravaggio died at the tender age of 38, and with him, an interest in his paintings. Furthermore, only one of the 68 known works was signed by the artist himself, adding to more controversy surrounding the paintings’ provenances, while resulting in the loss of some of his works. It was not until the mid 20th century when long-deserved light was once again shed on the artist and his oeuvre.

The masterpiece will take a final odyssey, available for public eye in London, New York and Paris, before returning to its birthplace for the auction, where it is estimated to fetch an amount close to €150 million (S$229 million).

Photos: Cabinet Turquin

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