Art Market

Will a Long-Lost Caravaggio Sell for $170 Million?

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1607.  Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1607. Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

A painting discovered in a French family’s attic is believed to be a long-lost and could sell at auction for $170 million. That result for Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1607) would constitute a major coup for the family, as well as the auctioneer and dealer organizing the sale—more than 1,100 times Caravaggio’s current auction record.
The painting, thought to be the master’s long-lost second version of the bloody biblical scene of Judith beheading Holofernes, is coming to auction with an astounding presale estimate between €100 million and €150 million ($113.2 million–$169.7 million). Such sums are rare enough in Christie’s and Sotheby’s high-stakes sales of modern and contemporary trophies in New York and London, but Judith and Holofernes will be offered on the evening of June 27th by a regional auction house in Toulouse, France.
The work of art is being sold by the local family in whose attic it was found in 2014, through Toulouse-based auctioneer Marc Labarbe and Parisian dealer Eric Turquin. The rareness of this piece is also in the story of its discovery. It has been on a five-year cycle of cleaning, research, and analysis. The wondrous process has been documented with a 168-page catalogue, a dedicated website, and exhibitions of the piece in Milan, Paris, London, and New York.
“Once all this background work is done, the location of the sale is of little importance and has more to do with spectacle than strategy,” Labarbe said.
The sale itself may or may not turn into a historic spectacle, though the last Old Master work marketed as a rediscovered masterpiece and tagged with a nine-figure estimate—Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500)—certainly did. But no matter the outcome, the story of Judith and Holofernes is spectacular.

A hidden treasure in the attic

Detail of Caravaggio,  Judith and Holofernes,  ca. 1607.    Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

Detail of Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1607. Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

Judith and Holofernes could just as easily have been discovered a decade earlier, when its present owners—a family that has chosen to remain anonymous through this process, but has roots in Toulouse dating back to the 19th century—noticed their roof was leaking, and water was running into their attic. Nobody noticed the nearly 6-foot-wide painting the water had leaked onto, which was propped up against a wall behind some old mattresses and box springs.
The painting might also have been discovered two years later, when thieves ransacked the attic of valuables, but missed its biggest treasure. “If those thieves should ever read these lines,” Labarbe wrote in his catalogue introduction, “they can rest assured that no single eye, while preoccupied all at once by the crime, the darkness and the clutter, could have possibly noticed a painting by a master.”
Finally, the owners came across the massive, murky painting while clearing out the attic of their house, which has been in their family since 1871. They called in Labarbe, who in turn alerted Turquin; after three months of analysis by the dealer and his team in Paris, the verdict came back. Caravaggio. Since then, the painting has undergone cleaning and conservation to repair water damage and remove the varnish that blurred the composition’s crisp details. Caravaggio experts were brought in, so that by the time the discovery was made public in 2016, authorities—including the former director of the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Nicola Spinosa—had signed off on the Caravaggio attribution.

Cracking the Caravaggio case

Installation view of Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes,  ca. 1607.  Photo by Eva Sakellarides. Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

Installation view of Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1607. Photo by Eva Sakellarides. Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

Those who support the attribution to Caravaggio consider Judith and Holofernes to be Caravaggio’s long-lost second version of a subject he famously painted around 1599—the earlier work is housed in Barberini Palace in Rome. Caravaggio revisited the iconic subject when he was in Naples around 1607, following his exile from Rome for murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni. The existence of this second Judith and Holofernes is known from a copy of the work by the French artist and dealer , who lived in Naples at the beginning of the 17th century.
The lost Caravaggio is mentioned in a 1607 letter sent by a Flemish painter visiting Naples to his patron, the Duke of Mantua. In the letter, the painter notes that one of two bellissimi Caravaggio paintings for sale is a Judith and Holofernes on offer for a little under 300 ducats. The seller is thought to have been Finson. When Finson died a decade later, he left the unsold painting to fellow artist-dealer Abraham Vinck in his will. Then, Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes disappeared.
Detail of Caravaggio,  Judith and Holofernes,  ca. 1607.    Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

Detail of Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1607. Courtesy of Eric Turquin.

The big question is how the painting ended up in Toulouse. Finson is known to have passed through the city on business trips in the years before his death. The piece landed in France by the early 19th century. Its distinctly French stretcher is of a sort that was only used around that time, according to Claudio Falcucci, a scientist who analyzed the painting.
Some experts remain skeptical of the Caravaggio attribution. Italian art historian Mina Gregori has suggested that Judith and Holofernes could be a work by . Gianni Papi, a Caravaggio expert at the University of Florence, considers it to be a second copy of Caravaggio’s original by Finson.

Caravaggio’s comeback

If the attribution to Caravaggio proves strong enough to entice buyers, the June 27th Judith and Holofernes sale will be an unprecedented test for the master’s market.
The current auction record for a Caravaggio is just $145,500, set in 1998 at a Sotheby’s sale of Old Master paintings. More recently, a Caravaggio considered to be his earliest surviving painting, Boy peeling a fruit (ca. 1592–93), was offered at Christie’s in 2015 with a presale estimate of $3 million to $5 million. Despite its purported art-historical significance, the painting failed to sell.
The short supply of sales data for Caravaggio is partially explained by the relative scarcity of his work. Of the art he produced before his death in 1610 at age 38, only 68 paintings are known to exist; of those, only five are still in private hands.
Another factor is that until the middle of the 20th century, nobody cared about Caravaggio. The art historian Roberto Longhi was instrumental in tracking down and championing his work, chronicling its enormous influence on the artists known as Caravaggisti, and turning him into an Old Master brand on the same level as or .
In fact, the recent pricing of Rembrandts was a determining factor for Labarbe and Turquin in coming up with the estimate for Judith and Holofernes. Turquin cited the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum’s joint acquisition, in 2015, of a pair of Rembrandt portraits for €160 million ($181 million), as well as the Amsterdam museum’s recent maneuvers to buy another Rembrandt for €165 million ($186.7 million). According to Turquin, there are about five times as many Rembrandt paintings in the world as there are paintings attributed to Caravaggio. “The estimate we’ve put forward is rather modest for an artist who is far more important and far more rare,” he said.
We’ll find out if collectors buy that assessment on June 27th.
Benjamin Sutton is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Art Market and News.