For an elderly woman from Compiègne, northern France, an appraisal of her home unveiled far more than cobweb-covered books and packed-up, useless clutter. The woman soon learned that she was in possession of a rare 13th-century painting hanging above her kitchen hot plate. The work of art went on to fetch a jaw-dropping sum of money at auction.
The French government, however, has since blocked the winning bidder from exporting the painting overseas in the hope that it can be procured for the country’s national collection.
The elderly woman, who was in her nineties and whose name was not revealed to the news media, found the painting in summer of 2019, according to KTLA 5. It was authenticated and valued by art experts after the woman decided to have the contents of her house appraised before moving into a retirement home.
“I had a week to give an expert view on the house contents and empty it,” appraiser Philomène Wolf explained to Le Parisien. “I had to make room in my schedule; if I didn’t, then everything was due to go to the dump.”
Wolf noticed the 8-by-10-inch painting immediately and believed it to be a work of Italian primitivism. “But, I didn’t imagine it was a Cimabue,” Wolf said. Cimabue is the pseudonym of the Medieval artist Cenni di Pepo, born in Florence, Italy, around the year 1240.
The painting was taken to be examined by art experts at Cabinet Turquin. Art specialist Jerome Montcouquil revealed that it didn’t take long to ascertain the painting’s authenticity; the experts utilized infrared reflectography to confirm that the painting was, in fact, a rare 13th-century piece by Cimabue titled “Christ Mocked,” according to People,
The elderly owner of the painting had apparently believed it was an old Russian icon of little monetary value. The experts begged to differ; Cabinet Turquin estimated it to be worth between 4 and 6 million euros (US$4.4 million and $6.6 million).
At Actéon auction house in Senlis, north of Paris, “Christ Mocked” sold for more than four times its estimated value on Oct. 27, 2019. In a statement released by Turquin, it was revealed that the painting went to the highest bidder for a staggering $26.7 million.
French newspaper Le Monde reported that Chilean art collectors from the United States outbid New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the highly coveted painting.
Art specialist Montcouquil called Cimabue the “father of painting,” CNN reported. “[W]e know his work very well. There are only eleven of his paintings in the world; they are rare,” he adds.
Montcouquil explained that “Christ Mocked” is part of an eight-scene diptych based upon the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ that the artist completed in 1280. Two other paintings from the diptych reside at renowned art galleries; “The Virgin and Child with Two Angels” is on display at The National Gallery in London, England, and “The Flagellation of Christ” is on display at the Frick Collection in New York City.
Following the auction of “Christ Mocked,” the French Advisory Committee on National Treasures blocked the export of the painting by its new owner; the committee dictated that “Christ Mocked” would remain in France for 30 months following the auction, giving the French government time to raise the funds to purchase the painting on behalf of the nation.
The committee wishes to house “Christ Mocked” beside other of the artist’s works currently on display at the Louvre, including “Maestà,” widely regarded as Cimabue’s most famous painting, NPR reported.
The elderly Frenchwoman in whose kitchen the painting was first discovered has since passed away, but the gift she left behind for the art world is beyond compare.