How the Chase for the Latest ‘Lost’ Caravaggio Has Captivated Europe’s Art World
Late this March, Maria Cristina Terzaghi, an associate professor at Italian university Roma Tre, was writing about the acclaimed Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, when art dealer Fabrizio Moretti sent her a photograph of a painting via WhatsApp. It featured Pontius Pilate presenting a thorn-crowned Jesus, a recognizable tableau known as Ecce Homo. The exact image was new to Terzaghi, but its composition and light contrast felt familiar, mirroring other works by an artist she had studied for more than 17 years.
“Immediately, it was so clear. I said, ‘OK, I have to see it [in person],’ ” she recalls of her first glance. The starting bid for the artwork, which was slated to go on sale on April 8 at the Madrid auction house Ansorena, was just 1,500 euros, equivalent to about $1,800.Terzaghi asked the dealer and auctioneers for higher-resolution images, which further fueled her supposition that the work was an authentic Caravaggio. Based on interviews with almost a dozen of the world’s leading Caravaggio experts, it is a theory that the vast majority of them now support—and one which the dealer overseeing the work’s authentication aims to confirm in a report that he expects to release in early 2022.
In the high-stakes world of old masters hunting, a “sleeper” refers to a lost masterpiece that’s stayed out of the public eye, sometimes for centuries, often due to an earlier misattribution. As in this case, its true identity is often unknown to an owner, but its existence has been surmised by academics. If authenticated, the painting—titled The Crowning of Thorns by the auction house and Ecce Homo by most scholars—may prompt scholars to rethink already disputed Caravaggio works elsewhere and a significant portion of his career.
In 2014 another sleeper, often titled Judith and Holofernes, found under a mattress in a French attic, unleashed a storm of international debate when it was labeled a rediscovered Caravaggio. It sold for an undisclosed sum in 2019 to a then anonymous private buyer—just two days before a public auction that aimed to sell it for up to $170 million, and after five years of authentication research.
This spring, the chase for this latest “lost” Caravaggio moved more quickly, as news of the possible discovery made its way around the tight circle of old masters aficionados. Terzaghi remembers receiving a message from David García Cueto, a curator of Italian art at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, asking if she had seen the work in person yet. By then, she was already planning to view it in Madrid, as well as to meet up with Moretti and his friend Marco Voena, another Italian art dealer, the day before the proposed sale. She responded to Cueto en route to the Spanish capital. On April 7, she touched down, dropped her bags at a hotel and rushed to the auction house before it closed for the day.
Staff had by then taken the painting off public display and ushered Terzaghi into a separate room to examine it with a flashlight. “In my life, I couldn’t imagine that I could see a new Caravaggio,” Terzaghi says. “It’s not so common.” (Experts estimate that there are roughly 60 known works by Caravaggio in the world, many of which have hung in the same public institutions for decades if not centuries.) After seeing the artwork in person, Terzaghi judged it was authentic—a view that, if cemented by scientific analysis and enough other art historians and if sold at international auction, might result in a price tag of more than $100 million. That would make it one of the most expensive old master paintings in history. But, as Terzaghi soon learned, the painting was unlikely to leave Spain.
““In my life, I couldn’t imagine that I could see a new Caravaggio. It’s not so common.” ”
After she left the gallery, she called Cueto—who, unbeknownst to her, had already discretely scouted the painting days earlier while it was still on public display—to share her assessment. She was also unaware that Cueto’s boss, Prado director Miguel Falomir, had already reached out to Elena Hernando Gonzalo, a local government official responsible for safeguarding cultural heritage in Madrid, to inform her that questions about the painting’s attribution had arisen. Spain’s Ministry of Culture convened a midnight meeting to bar the work from leaving Spain. Hernando Gonzalo swiftly began the process to label the work an “asset of cultural interest.” This designation gives the item a protected status, requiring authorization for any alteration and granting the Spanish state the right of first refusal on any future foreign sale.
The morning of the auction, Moretti and Voena, through their representation, emailed Ansorena an offer of €10 million ($11.74 million), including commission. Andrea Ciaroni, another Italian dealer, says he also viewed the painting several days earlier, after his own segnalatore—Italian for signaler—had tipped him off to its existence. “Watching such an important painting show up at a very little price, of course, excited everyone,” says Ciaroni, one of at least three parties who say they made a seven-figure-or-higher offer before the scheduled auction. While a representative from Ansorena says the number of offers is confidential, the auction house’s CEO, Jaime Mato, says any offers made were irrelevant since the piece had been pulled from the auction under instructions from the owners—siblings Antonio, Diego and Mercedes Pérez de Castro (who declined to be interviewed for this article).
““Watching such an important painting show up at a very little price, of course, excited everyone.” ”
An earlier independent appraisal had attributed the canvas to the workshop of Spanish artist José de Ribera, who spent much of his life in Italy and adopted a similar style to Caravaggio’s, known as tenebrism, which emphasizes the contrast between light and dark. As a consequence, Mato says, after receiving the work in the weeks leading up to the auction, his team had no reason to doubt the original attribution. But once the painting was withdrawn, closely examining its provenance would be crucial to determining its potential sale value.
Jorge Coll, the Barcelona-born CEO of Colnaghi, one of the world’s oldest commercial art galleries, met directly with the three siblings, who told him the painting had hung in their family home for decades and was one of several they sought to sell at the auction. Historians soon revealed that Evaristo Pérez de Castro, the owners’ ancestor and an early prime minister of Spain, had mentioned the work in his will almost 200 years earlier.Sitting at his London desk with a Picasso over his right shoulder, Coll says his interest in research versus a commercial gain, as well as his gallery’s presence and relationships in Spain helped the family trust him to oversee the painting’s authentication and restoration. “It was a total revelation for the market,” says Coll. “You’re unveiling something which is very important.”
In May, he accompanied a delegation of experts from some of the city’s leading art institutions, to see the painting at its current home, a storage facility on the outskirts of Madrid. The group discussed the restoration process and technical analysis, which Coll says will proceed slowly. The painting will need to be cleaned by carefully removing layers of varnished oxidized paint, with scientists using X-rays and infrared reflectography to examine its hidden layers, as well as test the canvas and paint pigments. As of late September, Coll was still undecided about which institution should conduct these tests.
““Provenance alone is not going to get you a Caravaggio. It has to pass the technical and visual tests.” ”
Eric Turquin, who authenticated Judith and Holofernes, says that finding a possible Caravaggio may be the “most exciting thing” that an art historian, dealer or expert will experience in his or her life. But Caravaggio’s work is “probably the most difficult to recognize,” he says, thanks to the artist’s technical and stylistic evolution. “He’s not an obvious artist—at least to me.”
And despite the academic consensus that the painting is most likely a Caravaggio, some experts remain unconvinced, notably Nicola Spinosa, the former Superintendent of Naples’s Art Museums who is one of a few art history experts to have seen the painting in person so far. A thorough cleaning process is necessary, he says, to clarify the painter’s identity.
“Provenance alone is not going to get you a Caravaggio,” says David. M. Stone, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware’s art history department and a trustee of the American Academy in Rome. “It has to pass the technical and visual tests.”Despite the Spanish government’s restrictions on export, a solid authentication could still mean institutions—like the Prado—would pay a significant sum to ensure it joins other world-famous works in public hands. Museum officials have declined to discuss the painting until their own experts have been able to analyze it.
“If you think about, What is the value of a canvas and some oil?—it’s nothing,” Coll says. “But it’s about the creation.”
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