Kids may say the darndest things, but you really have to give it to old people for sometimes eccentrically hoarding the darndest Medieval masterwork paintings. That’s the case this week, as a discovery made in June by Philomène Wolf, auctioneer for Actéon, a small auction house from the French town of Senlis, is a small-scale work of devotion among the authenticated works by the Florentine painter Cenni di Pepo, also known as Cimabue — hailed as the first truly great creator of Tuscan painting and active in the years 1272 to 1302.
Wolf came across the unsigned 10×8 inch tempera-on-panel painting hanging above a hot plate in the home of an elderly French woman in Compiegne, who was selling her home. She hired the auction house to “give an expert view on the house contents and empty it” within a week, according to Wolf, quoted in Le Parisien. The young auctioneer initially suspected the usually exquisite painting to be a work of Italian primitivism, “but I didn’t imagine it was a Cimabue,” she said. Wolf referred the painting, to Eric Turquin, an Old Master appraiser based in Paris — already notorious for his role in the confirmation of a long-lost Carvaggio work. The work is now titled the Mocking of Christ, as Turquin believes it to be part of a small polyptych by Cimabue that also included the Flagellation of Christ and the Madonna and Child Enthroned between Two Angels. Part of the basis for this theory is a constellation of centuries-old tunnels created by a larval infestation of timber that comprises the panels.
“You can follow the tunnels made by the worms,” Turquin is quoted as saying in the Art Newspaper. “It’s the same poplar panel.” With this chain of natural evidence, as well as the style and subject of the painting, Turquin states: “We have objective proof it’s by the artist.”
Cimabue taught Italian master Giotto and is considered the forefather of the Italian Renaissance. The other components of the polyptych were acquired by the Frick Collection in New York in 1950 (“Flagellation of the Christ”) and the National Gallery in London in 2000 (“Madonna and Child Enthroned between Two Angels”). “Madonna” was slated to be auctioned at Sotheby’s, but was acquired for the nation by private treaty for about £7.2 million (~$8.8 million) just before the sale. Now Turquin, who is selling the painting in conjunction with Actéon, estimates that “Mocking of Christ” will to go for between €4 million and €6 million ($4.3–$6.5 million). Wolf, quoted in the Art Newspaper, denies the possibility of a pre-action sale, insisting on the public date in late October: “It will be sold only at auction. It’s going to be the first public result for Cimabue.”
One imagines that those portrayed mocking Christ lo these 700 years ago were Romans, but today it is inarguably Turquin, Wolf, and an older French lady who get the last laugh.