A religious art painting priced at € 1,500 at an auction in Madrid, Spain, has been removed at the last moment by its owners. In fact, an expert has concluded that it is a hand-painted Ecce homo by Caravaggio which vanished and had been missing for several decades.
It would have made fewer appearances than its divine model during the 40 days following the Resurrection: a painting depicting the Crowning with Thorns, which was to be auctioned on April 8, 2021 at the Casa Ansorena in Madrid, Spain was withdrawn from sale at the last minute by its owners.
“The lot has been taken away because a piece needed to be checked and studied more thoroughly, as the owners have some doubts about its authenticity,” says the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which broke the story.
To an uninformed eye, the painting did not stand out in comparison to the many paintings auctioned that day: it is an oil on canvas measuring 111 x 86 centimeters, entitled “The Crowning with Thorns,” attributed to José de Ribera, a disciple of Caravaggio, and priced at 1,500 euros. So what happened for the canvas to have been removed last April 8?
The previous March 25, Vitorio Sgarbi, a renowned art historian in Italy, received a photograph of the painting from one of his colleagues who sought his expertise for an antique dealer he knew.
“As soon as I saw it, I realized that the painting was from Caravaggio’s hand, and I had only one desire: to buy it in order to bring it back to Italy,” says Vittorio Sgarbi.
The antique dealer, meanwhile, is also considering acquiring the canvas, even saying he is willing to put several hundred thousand euros on the table. A dramatic turn of events happened last April 6: “I am informed that the painting has been removed, perhaps due to too many previous offers,” the Italian expert told La Repubblica.
Indeed, a painting put up for auction at a low price is of no interest to anyone, but as soon as the auction is at risk of gaining momentum, the likelihood of a state intervention to maintain the work in the country is high. The sale price then caps, much to the chagrin of the owners of the work.
After removing the painting from the auction, the owners can sell it discreetly and hope for a very good price. Because, if the attribution to Caravaggio is proven, “the purchase price could be between 100 and 150 million euros, if it is sold to a private investor, as opposed to 40 or 50 million to a public museum, such as the Prado,” says Vittorio Sgarbi.
The attribution to Caravaggio is not based on the sole opinion of the Italian historian: other elements converge in the same direction, such as a letter from Caravaggio dated June 25, 1605 where he wrote: “I, Michel Angelo Merisi da Caravaggio, declare to have received a sum of money from the illustrious Massimo Massimi, in payment for the commission of a painting representing The Crowning with Thorns.”
The canvas in question would therefore be the Ecce homo painted by Caravaggio for Cardinal Massimi, the addressee of the letter. On the other hand, two historians of the modern era, Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Filippo Baldinucci, report that as early as the end of the seventeenth century, the painting had arrived in Spain.
Vittorio Sgarbi is convinced of this: “in my opinion, Caravaggio’s imprint appears in the brutal gaze of the man on the left, and in the hand that holds the red fabric of the stole. This motif is the indisputable signature of Caravaggio,” he assures.
For fans of Caravaggio, the hope of contemplating this painting has waned sharply. When such a canvas is removed from auction for a private sale, there is little hope of seeing it again, for a long time.