Has a Caravaggio been found languishing in an attic in the southern French city of Toulouse? That’s what the Old Master painting expert Eric Turquin thinks of Judith Beheading Holofernes (1604-05), unveiled to the press today in Paris, 12 April. If authenticated, this would amount to the biggest Caravaggio discovery since 1991, when National Gallery of Ireland’s The Taking of Christ (around 1602) was attributed to the master.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, which is known from historical sources and a copy attributed to Louis Finson, arrived at Turquin’s Paris office in April 2014. “For two years, experts, art historians, conservators, restorers and radiologists have weighed in on the painting in the utmost secrecy,” Turquin explains. The painting’s surface needed to be cleaned, but it is in relatively good condition, especially considering it has been tucked away in an attic for 150 years. Stylistic examinations determined the rapidity of execution and intensity of light as characteristics absent from Finson’s copy.
The painting spent three weeks in the laboratories of the Louvre Museum, and, while French conservators have not publicly commented on its authenticity, it has been listed as a “national treasure” and given a 30-month export ban. The owners wish to sell the work, whose value is estimated at €120m. Experts have been forced to unveil the painting because of the publication of the export ban on 31 March, though Turquin calls this “premature, because there is still a lot of research to be done on its history and its arrival in Toulouse”.
“There is no consensus [on attribution], and I’m not looking for a consensus,” says Turquin. “In 2003, there were still criticisms on the Dublin work [attributed to Caravaggio 1991]. Caravaggio is an artist who lends himself to controversy.”