Before it was pulled from sale, lot 229, a small but luminous oil painting of the scourged Christ attributed to the circle of the 17th-century Spanish artist José de Ribera, had been due to go under the hammer in Madrid on Thursday with a guide price of €1,500 (£1,300).
Closer inspection, however, has raised suspicions that the Crowning with Thorns may be the rather more valuable work of the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, leading the Spanish government to impose an export ban on the painting.
The canvas, which measures 111cm by 86cm, is now being studied by experts to determine its authorship. The possible misattribution may be understandable: Ribera, the son of a shoemaker, studied in Rome and was a noted follower of Caravaggio and an admirer of his use of chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.
Spain’s culture ministry said it had moved quickly to place a precautionary export ban on the painting after receiving a call from experts at the Prado on Tuesday. Specialists at the museum said there was “sufficient stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it could be an original Caravaggio.
The ministry agreed to the ban at an emergency meeting on Wednesday and notified the auction house, Ansorena, which withdrew the painting from Thursday evening’s auction.
“Given the speed at which all this has been happening, we now need a thorough technical and scientific study of the painting in question,” said a source at the ministry. “There needs to be an academic debate about whether the Caravaggio attribution is plausible and accepted by the scientific community.”
Maria Cristina Terzaghi, an art history professor at the University of Rome and an expert on Caravaggio, said she believed that the painting was by the Italian.
“It’s him,” she said. “The composition of the red in the purple mantle that covers Christ is the same as the picture of Salome with the head of John the Baptist in the royal palace in Madrid.’’
Terzaghi said the work “closely resembled” the painting Caravaggio made during the first part of his time in Naples.
A spokesperson for Ansorena said: “Different experts are studying the picture to determine who painted it but I have no more information. In any case, the picture has been placed under an export bar and cannot leave Spain.”