The Rediscovered Caravaggio Painting Sold Before Its Auction

The Caravaggio masterpiece Judith and Holofernes that was found in a Toulouse attic in 2014 was planned to go to auction on June 27th and fetch up to $170 million, but sold privately to Met Museum board member J. Tomilson Hill before the public sale.

The Rediscovered Caravaggio Painting Sold Before Its Auction

One of the most anticipated auctions of the summer was cancelled two days before its sale when a private collector, American billionaire J. Tomilson Hill, swooped in to purchase the rediscovered Caravaggio masterpiece Judith and Holofernes.

Judith and Holofernes, Caravaggio. 1607, oil on canvas.
Judith and Holofernes, Caravaggio. 1607, oil on canvas.

The Baroque painting had been found in a Toulouse attic in 2014 and authenticated by Old Masters expert Eric Turquin after extensive study and scientific analysis over five years. The work was considered a national treasure when it was first found, but because of questions of its authenticity, the embargo on its export was lifted by the French government at the end of 2018. Turquin and auctioneer Marc Labarbe then arranged for the painting to go to auction in Toulouse on June 27th, 2019 with an estimate of 100-150 million euros ($110-170 million).

Old Master's expert Eric Turquin (left) and Toulouse auctioneer Marc Labarbe in front of the painting. Image: Turquin
Old Master's expert Eric Turquin (left) and Toulouse auctioneer Marc Labarbe in front of the painting. Image: Turquin

However, on June 25th, Eric Turquin and Marc Labarbe announced that they "received an offer that could not be ignored" and "the fact that it came from someone close to an important museum convinced the sellers to accept." On June 27, the New York Times reported that the painting's buyer is J. Tomilson Hill, the former vice chairman of asset management firm Blackstone and an avid art collector, who is on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and opened his own museum, the Hill Art Foundation, in New York. While the price Hill paid for the Caravaggio painting has not been made public due to a confidentiality clause, Turquin and Labarbe admitted that it was above the $34 million expected starting bid.

Judith and Holofernes was painted in 1607 in Naples, where Caravaggio transplanted after he was banished from Rome for killing a man. This Neapolitan period signals a shift in Caravaggio's work, which became darker as his career was on the descent. According to documents, the painting was offered to the Duke of Mantua, but the cost was likely too high. It was then acquired by Louis Finson, a Flemish dealer and imitator of Caravaggio's work, who willed it in 1617 to Abraham Vinck, another Flemish painter who lived in Naples. Although the exact whereabouts after this is unknown, the painting ended up in the possession of a family that has been settled in the Toulouse area for several decades and descends from a Napoleonic officer who campaigned in Spain from 1808 to 1814.

Letter by the painter Frans Pourbus to the Duke of Mantua on September 25, 1607, image © Ministry for Cultural Goods and Activities via The Toulouse Caravaggio
Letter by the painter Frans Pourbus to the Duke of Mantua on September 25, 1607, image © Ministry for Cultural Goods and Activities via The Toulouse Caravaggio

Judith and Holofernes was Caravaggio's second representation of the scene (the c. 1598 version has been in the collection of the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome since the 1950s), which comes from the Apocrypha's Book of Judith. Holofernes, an Assyrian general about to wage war against the city of Bethulia, holds a wine party and drinks excessively. Later, he is joined in his tent by a Bethulian woman, Judith, who decapitates him and gives Holofernes' head to her maid.

Judith and Holofernes, Caravaggio. 1598, oil on canvas. Image: WikiCommons
Judith and Holofernes, Caravaggio. 1598, oil on canvas. Image: WikiCommons

Due to its murky provenance, the dramatic work has been mired by questions of authenticity and the possibility it was painted by Louis Finson. Old Masters painting expert Eric Turquin, who studied the work for five years, cites a variety of reasons supported by scientific analysis that it is a true Caravaggio. Tests revealed that the same type of canvas was used here as Caravaggio's other works during his stint in Naples and the paint, which contains large amounts of calcium carbonate, was also used in his works of the same time. Furthermore, the painting's composition was characteristic of Caravaggio's process and technique, including details such as incised lines along the limbs, black contoured outlines of the figures, the a risparmio technique found in the shadows of Judith and Holofernes' faces and pentimenti, traces of modifications under the surface that prove that it is an original work and not a copy.

Infrared Reflectography (detail), Caravaggio positioned Holofernes on the canvas with large black brushstrokes, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio
Infrared Reflectography (detail), Caravaggio positioned Holofernes on the canvas with large black brushstrokes, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio

However, before the scientific results were in, Turquin was already convinced, stating, "The face of Judith so overwhelmed me that I never once had a moment of doubt. The incredible strength of her expression, the sensuality of her mouth, the energy of her movement, the opulence of the red curtain that works as a backdrop to the murder scene could only belong to the greatest of all painters, Caravaggio."

In this detail of Holofernes’ hand, the brown paint is left in reserve to mark the shadows, the to the technique ‘a risparmio’, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio
In this detail of Holofernes’ hand, the brown paint is left in reserve to mark the shadows, the to the technique ‘a risparmio’, image © The Toulouse Caravaggio

The June 27th sale in Toulouse was one of the year's most eagerly awaited sales, where Caravaggio's rediscovered work could have joined the ranks of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction. Of Caravaggio's 65 paintings across the globe, only five are in private collections, mostly in Italy and can never be exported. Now, this rediscovered masterpiece will likely join the collection of the Met and will be able to be enjoyed by the public for generations to come.

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