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Caravaggio Painting Estimated at $170 M. Sold Privately Ahead of Auction in France

The unveiling of Judith and Holofernes, 1607, at Colnaghi gallery.

The unveiling of Judith and Holofernes, 1607, at Colnaghi gallery.

FRANK AUGSTEIN/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

A closely watched auction of a work attributed to Caravaggio was expected to smash records. Now that sale has been nixed.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that Marc Labarbe, auctioneer and head of the eponymous auction house in Toulouse, France, has called off its planned auction of the Caravaggio painting Judith and Holofernes (1607), which had been given an estimate of €150 million ($170 million). The sale was planned for Thursday, and it was expected to set a new auction record for the Italian master.

According to Labarbe, the painting “sold privately to a foreign buyer.” Citing a confidentiality agreement, the auction house declined to offer the name of the buyer or the price for which the work sold.

The cancellation marks yet another strange development in a sale that had already been shrouded in mystery. Judith and Holofernes was rediscovered in an attic in 2014, in the Toulouse home of one of Labarbe’s friends, and it has since become the subject of intrigue.

The painting depicts the Biblical tale of Judith, who decapitated the Assyrian general Holofernes. The canvas is believed to be a version of a Caravaggio painting with a similar composition that is held by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. In a prior statement, Eric Turquin, an expert who works with Labarbe, called the painting “a very important milestone of Caravaggism.”

But some have cast doubt on whether the painting’s true author is Caravaggio at all. In a 2016 New York Times piece, two experts said the painting may be by Louis Finson, a Flemish acolyte of Caravaggio who made work in a similarly theatrical style. That same year, the French culture ministry said in a statement that the painting is “a very important Caravaggio marker, whose history and attribution are to be fully investigated.” The Musée du Louvre in Paris passed up an opportunity to acquire the work.

Labarbe has led a campaign to convince the public and historians of the work’s value. He first unveiled it at Colnaghi gallery in London in February, and the piece was shown at Paris’s Kamel Mennour gallery in April. The publicity campaign has also included a website devoted to the painting’s history, including scientific analyses that the house says prove that Caravaggio is its maker.

The website also includes a clock counting down to Thursday’s now canceled auction. As of Tuesday afternoon, the countdown clock was still running.

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