Senlis, France: A medieval painting that hung for years near the kitchen of an older Frenchwoman before being recognised as a work by Italian artist Cimabue was auctioned Sunday in France for $26.8 million (Dh98.4 million).
The unsigned tempera panel of The Mocking of Christ was the first work believed to have been painted by Cimabue — considered the “father” of Western painting — to sell at auction in living memory. Estimated to sell for €4 million (Dh16.3 million) to €6 million in an auction of low-value antiques, it eventually fetched €24.2 million with fees at the regional auction house Acteon, north of Paris.
The price was believed to be the highest for a European old-master painting at auction since Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” sold for a record-shattering $450.3 million at Christie’s in 2017.
The work was bought by London-based dealer Fabrizio Moretti against competition from at least six other bidders.
“I bought it on behalf of two collectors,” Moretti said in an interview immediately after the auction. “It’s one of the most important old-master discoveries in the last 15 years. Cimabue is the beginning of everything. He started modern art. When I held the picture in my hands, I almost cried.”
Moretti said the attribution to Cimabue (active 1272-1302) was “certain” and that the price was “big but fair.”
The 25-centimetre-high poplar panel was discovered in June during a valuation of the contents of the house of an older Frenchwoman near Compiegne, north of Paris. Thought by the family to be an icon, the painting hung on a wall next to the kitchen.
“I had a rare emotion with this little painting, almost indescribable,” said Philomene Wolf of Acteon, who had made the discovery. “In our profession, we know that this emotion was the result of a great master.”
Nothing is known of the history of the painting’s earlier ownership.
Acteon consulted Eric Turquin, the Paris-based art expert on old masters, who collaborated on the sale of the painting. In June, Turquin was the co-seller of a painting attributed to Caravaggio that was sold privately for an undisclosed price to American collector J. Tomilson Hill.
Turquin said his research identified the Compiegne panel as “the only small-scale work of devotion to have been recently added to the catalogue of authentic works by Cimabue.” It was described as being in “excellent general condition.”
“This was an easy sale,” Turquin said, comparing the auction of the Cimabue to the cancelled public sale in June of the “Judith and Holofernes” attributed to Caravaggio.
“I was pleased at 10 million and tremendously happy at 15 million,” he said of the Cimabue sale. “The price was more than I could have dreamed, and there was a contemporary art gallery bidding, which was new for us.”
According to Turquin, “The Mocking of Christ” was part of the same late-13th-century altarpiece that once included Cimabue’s similarly sized “Flagellation of Christ,” now in the Frick Collection in New York, and the “Madonna and Child Enthroned Between Two Angels,” now in the National Gallery in London.
The Frick acquired its Cimabue in 1950. The “Madonna and Child” was scheduled to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2000 but was sold to the National Gallery by private treaty for about 7.2 million pounds ($10.8 million). Discovered in a house in Suffolk, in eastern England, it had been estimated to sell for 10 million pounds, according to Artnet.
Traces of the original framing, the style and technique of the gold ornamentation, and the pattern of wormholes on the back of the Cimabue panel “confirm that these panels made up the left side of the same diptych,” Turquin said in a pre-auction statement.
Cimabue pioneered a more fluent and naturalistic style of figure painting in Italy. Only a dozen fully accepted works on panel are known to survive. All are unsigned. The most celebrated of these is the “Crucifixion” in Santa Croce, Florence, a painting badly damaged by flooding in 1966.
The Florence painter takes up the first biography in Giorgio Vasari’s hugely influential “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects,” published in 1550. Vasari describes how Cimabue emancipated himself from the “stiff manner” of Byzantine artists and was “the first cause of the revival of painting” before Giotto “overshadowed his renown.”