Painting found in French attic is long-lost Caravaggio, experts say

Vincenzo Pinto, AFP | Archival picture shows a journalist in front of Caravaggio's "Judith Beheading Holofernes" at an exhibition in Rome on September 30, 2009

A painting found in an attic in southwest France is a long-lost Caravaggio, experts said Tuesday as they unveiled a work estimated at 120 million euros if it is attributed to the Italian master.


The painting was presented during a press conference in Paris by art historian Eric Turquin, after two years of restoration and authentication completed in utmost secrecy.

Turquin said discovering the work of art was “the most beautiful moment of my career”, admitting he kept it in his own bedroom during that time “as a security measure”.

“The lighting is unique, this energy typical of Caravaggio, without corrections... means this painting is authentic”, the expert said.

It depicts a bloody biblical scene in which Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes to defend her city, and is strikingly similar in composition to a well-known Caravaggio on the same theme that is on display at the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome.

The painting "Judith Beheading Holofernes", by Caravaggio, at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome
The painting "Judith Beheading Holofernes", by Caravaggio, at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome

The existence of a second “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Caravaggio is documented in the last will of Flemish painter Louis Finson, who was an admirer of the Italian artist and copied his masterpieces.

But the painting disappeared without a trace around 400 years ago.

The canvas unveiled on Tuesday was found in the attic of a house near the city of Toulouse in 2014 by a family that has wished to remain anonymous. It was temporarily placed in the care of a local art appraiser before making its way to Turquin’s firm in Paris.

Work of a copycat?

Since the discovery of the painting was made public, attention has quickly turned to establishing its authenticity. Most clues appear to confirm it is a true Caravaggio, but some doubt persists.

The work features bold, long brushstrokes with few corrections, which are characteristic of the master and unlike imitations. “It's been done by someone with authority who doesn't second-guess their work," Turquin told French television on Monday ahead of the unveiling.

Furthermore, certain elements in the composition - such as the servant’s goitre, and a tree branch - can be found in other paintings by Caravaggio.

However, some experts have drawn attention to the sword, which is different from the one most often depicted by Caravaggio.

Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily in the early 17th century. His paintings are known for their strong emotional charge and dramatic use of lighting.

‘A masterpiece’

The painting will undergo further restoration and scrutiny by art experts in the following days and weeks, with the French state expressing interest in the rare find.

France’s culture ministry on March 25 issued an order banning the painting from leaving the country for a minimum of 30 days and pending further examinations.

Turquin said opinions about the painting would remain split, but added: “all the experts agree on one thing, it’s a masterpiece.”

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