Spain blocks sale of possible Caravaggio painting

by Deborah Cater
Possible Caravaggio painting of Jesus before crucifixion.

MADRID – Spain has blocked the auction of a possible Caravaggio painting in Madrid. The artwork, originally attributed to Spaniard José de Ribera could be a long-lost masterpiece by the Italian Caravaggio.

The oil painting depicts Jesus before his crucifixion and according to the auction catalogue is a work by Spanish artist José de Ribera. Ribera was a leading exponent of the Spanish School of art, though much of his mature work was carried out in Italy.

Value could be €150million

As a work by Ribera, Crowning of Thorns was initially given a starting price of €1,500. However, if it is a work by Carvaggio that could multiply to €150million.

Experts are examining the painting and it has been declared “not for export” whilst the work is underway.

The Spanish government blocked the auction just hours before the painting was due to go under the hammer. This prevents the painting from being sold abroad. “The painting is valuable, we hope it’s a Caravaggio,” Spain’s Minister of Culture José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes said.

“As to who painted it, different experts are studying the work and right now we have no further information. The painting has been declared ‘not for export’ and will not be able to leave Spain,” a spokeswoman at Ansorena auction house in Madrid told AFP.

Expert analysis

The Prado Museum told the culture ministry there was “sufficient documentary and stylistic evidence to consider that the painting… may be an original work by Caravaggio,” a source from the ministry said, quoted by AFP.

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An art history expert also told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that the red used in the cloak worn by Jesus was similar to the cloak of Salome in Caravaggio’s famous painting of Salome with the head of John the Baptist. “It’s him,” Maria Cristina Terzaghi said.

Caravaggio's Salome with head of John the Baptist

Spain’s culture ministry will allow in-depth technical and scientific study of the painting. This will determine whether it is a Caravaggio.

Among other methods, art historians will carry out a forensic examination of the canvas and paint to determine their age. They will also look at the technology and styles of the era, and the techniques of the artist and their students.

A Caravaggio unexpectedly turned up before

In 2014, in the loft of a house in Toulouse (France), a version of Judith beheading Holofernes unexpectedly appeared. It had an estimated value of up to $170million. An anonymous foreign buyer purchased it two days before it was due to be sold at auction.

Who was Caravaggio?


Caravaggio was born around 1571-73 as Michelangelo Merisi. His life was a mix of brilliance and violence.

He pioneered the painting technique chiaroscuro – where light and dark are in sharp contrast. In his works, he uses a few other colours that bring a vividness to the canvas. Art historian Gilles Lambert stated that Caravaggio “put the oscuro (shadows) in chiaroscuro”. He may not have invented the technique, but his work made it a dominant element. His subjects bathe in beams of light while the rest of the piece plunges into dark shadows.


Caravaggio was known for starting brawls and spent time in gaol. He even killed a man. It was whilst in exile from Rome for this crime that he died in mysterious circumstances aged only 38.

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