The Prado Will Show a Newly Discovered Caravaggio That Nearly Went to Auction for a Pittance

Eagle-eyed observers at the museum identified the painting as possibly being a work by the Baroque master.

Caravaggio, Ecce homo (1604-05), after restoration. Courtesy private collection.

A newly discovered and restored work by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio will soon go on view at Madrid’s Prado Museum, in the same city where it was identified as a signature work by the artist. Ecce Homo (1605–09), is one of only about 60 known works by the artist, and shows Roman governor Pontius Pilate presenting Christ to the people, a scene from the Passion of Christ as recounted in the Gospel of John.

The work had not left Spain for four centuries, having passed through the collections of several high-ranking officials and even King Phillip IV before going to Spanish diplomat Evaristo Pérez de Castro Méndez in 1821; it has remained with his descendants ever since. It will go on view from May 28 through October.

Ecce Homo had been offered for sale for a pittance as the work of another artist. It was scheduled to go to auction in April 2021 at Madrid’s Ansorena auction house, at which time it was attributed to a follower of Spanish artist José de Ribera (himself an admirer of Caravaggio) and bore a reserve price of just €1,500 ($1,780). But experts at the Prado Museum placed an export ban on the work, saying that there was “sufficient stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it might have been done by Caravaggio himself. 

A painting of Pontius Pilate presenting Christ to the people

Caravaggio, Ecce homo (1604-05), during restoration. Courtesy private collection.

Maria Cristina Terzaghi, an associate art history professor and Caravaggio expert at University Roma Tre, immediately booked a plane ticket to Madrid and was among the first to identify it as a signature work by the master, telling El Pais, “It’s a Caravaggio. I have no doubts.” She identified the red of Christ’s robe and the face of Pilate from other Caravaggio works. 

At that time, Italian art historian Vittorio Sgarbi told the Sunday Times that the piece could sell to private collectors for between €100 and €150 million (about $108 million and $162 million) or to the Prado for €40 or €50 million (about $43 million to $54 million).

The painting’s new owner will lend it to the Prado for exhibition; the loan is handled by Colnaghi Gallery (which has locations in London, New York, Brussels, and Madrid). The painting was restored by Andrea Cipriani and his team in collaboration with two London dealers, Filippo Benappi of Benappi Fine Art and Andrea Lullo of Lullo Pampoulides gallery.

The painting’s provenance will also get the documentary film treatment. Madrid producer Morena Films is teaming up with Estrategia Audiovisual and Italian entertainment company Fandango to create The Sleeper, a “thriller doc” to be produced and directed by Álvaro Longoria. It started production at the end of 2023, reported Variety, with the guidance of Colnaghi CEO Jorge Coll.

“You can’t ask for a better thriller plot,” Longoria told Variety. “The world of art is fascinating and somewhat obscure. The variables that affect the artistic versus economic value of a painting are plenty and this has always fascinated me.”  

In an accompanying catalogue, four experts make the case for the painting as an authentic piece by the master: along with Terzaghi, there’s art historian Gianni Papi, University of Naples art history professor Giuseppe Porzio, and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Kieth Christiansen.

“The Prado played an important role in the recovery of this work by alerting the Ministry of Culture of its importance, which prevented its departure from Spain,” said Miguel Falomir, director of the Prado. “Thanks to the generosity of its current owner, the Prado now makes an exceptional work by one of the greatest painters in history available to the public and the scientific community.”

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