A painting that a French family found in their attic while investigating a leaky roof may be a long-lost Caravaggio. The large canvas depicts the Old Testament scene of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, and several experts claim it is the second version, long presumed lost, of Caravaggio’s famous “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1598–99), which is in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome.
The possible Caravaggio is currently on view in the Paris office of Old Master painting dealer Eric Turquin who, along with auctioneer Marc Labarde, has been working to authenticate the work since it was first found by a family in Toulouse in April 2014. It is being offered for sale to the French state for €120 million (~$135 million), and culture minister Audrey Azoulay has designated it a national treasure, which means it is barred from leaving the country for 30 months.
“The ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ that has just been identified in a private collection in Toulouse must be considered, by far, the most important painting discovered in the last 20 years, and by one of the universal geniuses of painting,” Turquin said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “The rediscovered painting is in exceptional condition for a work four centuries old, and it is perfectly documented.”
Indeed, contemporaneous documents confirm that Caravaggio is known to have painted a second version of the scene in 1604 or 1605 and is believed to have brought the picture with him when he fled Rome for Naples, where it is known to have been as early as 1607. The second “Judith Beheading Holofernes” was owned by the Franco-Flemish art dealer and painter Louis Finson, and a copy of it that he painted is in the collection of the Intesa Sanpaolo bank and on view at the Palazzo Zevallos in Naples. However, the location of Caravaggio’s second “Judith Beheading Holofernes” has been a mystery for centuries.
Several clues in the painting suggest it is indeed the work of the master, most notably the presence of the same model who appears in his 1607 painting “The Crucifixion of St. Andrew.” The older woman painted as Judith’s maid Abra in the newly discovered painting, with her deeply creased face and prominent goiter, is seen staring up at St. Andrew from the lower left-hand corner of Caravaggio’s crucifixion scene. Another detail in favor of authenticating the work is the fact, revealed through infrared imaging, that the canvas lacks any preparatory sketches or marks, which Caravaggio rarely made before beginning to paint.
But if this indeed a real Caravaggio, how did it end up in an attic in Toulouse? “The home’s owners are descendants of an officer in Napoleon’s army,” Turquin told Le Figaro. “Perhaps it is through him that the painting made its way into the family’s possession.”
While Sébastien Allard, the director of France’s national painting collection, pores over a report by the Center for Research and Restoration of the French Museums to attempt to determine the possible Caravaggio’s authenticity and whether or not it should be acquired, Le Figaro has put it to a public vote. As of this writing, 69% of responders think France should buy the painting.