Caravaggio or Caravaggisti?

[19 Apr 2016]


The revelation of a new work attributed to Caravaggio – discovered two years ago in the attic of a house in Toulouse (France) – has been greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. Initially announced as a genuine Caravaggio, a number of experts have expressed uncertainty about its authorship with some suggesting it could have been painted by the Flemish Caravaggisti artist, Louis Finson.

On 12 March 2016, the Parisian art expert, Eric Turquin, announced that the discovered painting of Judith and Holofernes is the most important canvas discovered in the last twenty years by one of the great geniuses of universal painting. If it really is by Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi CARAVAGGIO IL), the expert is certainly right about its importance. We know that Caravaggio painted two versions of Judith and Holofernes. The first version is exhibited at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. The second has been lost. However, an announcement in the Journal Officiel (official French legal notices publication) on 31 March 2016 indicated certain reservations about the attribution, stating that the work deserves to be retained on French territory as a very important example of works in the style of Caravaggio, and that the history and authorship of the painting still require further research. Indeed, opinions about the painting are still divided with two major Italian Caravaggio experts, Mina Gregori and Gianni Papi, remaining skeptical. According to Gianni Papi, certain stylistic elements suggest the work of Louis FINSON, a Flemish painter and a great admirer of Caravaggio, who contributed to popularising Caravaggio’s style in Northern Europe. Louis Finson (or Ludovicus Finsonius) was born before 1580 in Bruges and died in 1617 in Amsterdam. After visiting Italy, he worked in a number of southern French towns, including Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Montpellier and… Toulouse. He himself is known to have painted ​​several versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes, one of which can be seen at the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples. In view of the different opinions expressed about the work found in Toulouse, the authentication process will continue. Its management has been taken over by the Louvre.

A mini-revolution in the Old Masters market?

As works by Caravaggio of this importance no longer exist on the market and large-format Old Masters are extremely rare, an authentic Caravaggio of this size would be expected to join the highly exclusive club of artworks worth 9-digit sums (i.e. that have fetched over $100 million at auction). Today, this club includes only 10 works: three by Pablo Picasso, three by Alberto Giacometti, one by Modigliani (his magnificent Reclining Nude which sold in November 2015), a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Francis Bacon’s study of Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash. By joining this club, the work would set a new auction record for the Old Masters segment, a record that has not been renewed since 2002 when Peter Paul Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents fetched $76.6 million at Sotheby’s in London. That Rubens masterpiece would almost certainly fetch over $100 million if it were offered for sale today.
If the work is definitively authenticated as a Caravaggio and subsequently put up for sale, it would have the effect of a mini-revolution on the somewhat exhausted Western market for Old Masters (works by artists born before 1760) whose turnover is inexorably declining ($538.3 million in 2015 compared with $549.5 million in 2005). High quality works are quite simply too rare; in 2015 only one Old Master work crossed the $10 million threshold, that of Lucas I CRANACH (Bocca della Verità fetched $14.4 million at Sotheby’s in London on 8 July 2015).

An exceptional Finson?

Notwithstanding the substantial price differential between Finson and Caravaggio, if the work is ultimately attributed to Finson, it could refresh the artist’s current auction record and maybe even cross the million-dollar threshold. Louis Finson is not the most expensive Caravaggisti painter on the market; the Dutch painters Hendrick TER BRUGGHEN (1588-1629) and Gerrit VAN HONTHORST (1592-1656) already change hands for several million dollars. That said, rarity, particularly when combined with a strong passion-buying factor, can often generate big auction surprises. In certain cases, the estimated price range is really more of a launch pad for bidders, rather than a definitive valuation range. This can’t be illustrated with Caravaggio’s market (which is virtually nonexistent), but it can with Louis Finson’s market: ten years ago, the largest Finson work ever auctioned (Allegory of the Four Elements) multiplied its high estimate by ten, rising from $60,000 to over $600,000 at the hammer, perfectly illustrating the acquisitive fervor for top quality Old Masters (estimated $64,000, Allegory of the Four Elements fetched nearly $620,000 on 10 May 2005 at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam).

For the time being, we will have to be patient and wait at least 30 months to know if the Judith and Holofernes painting will be sold publicly or privately, because according to the French Ministry of Culture, it will take 30 months to carry out the authentication of this ‘national treasure’.