'Lost' Caravaggio valued at $170M sold

Mystery buyer snagged painting before auction

By Amy Woodyatt, CNN
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Guests and members of the media listen to a presentation on "Judith and Holofernes" by Caravaggio during a press event on Feb. 28, 2019, in London.

(CNN) - A Caravaggio painting found in a French attic and estimated to be worth up to €150 million ($170 million) has been sold to a mystery foreign buyer, just two days before it was due to be auctioned.

The work, which was discovered in the city of Toulouse in 2014 by a man who was clearing his loft, had been identified by art expert Eric Turquin as a lost work of Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, better known simply as Caravaggio.

The subject of the painting, "Judith and Holofernes," illustrates a grisly passage from the Old Testament's Book of Judith, and shows the eponymous young widow beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes after seducing him in his tent. It is believed to have been painted around 1607.

After its discovery, French authorities slapped an export ban on the work citing its importance to the art world and a need to "fully investigate" it. At a press conference in February it was announced that the painting would be auctioned on June 27, where it was expected to fetch up to €150 million, but a mystery buyer described by art specialist Turquin as "someone close to an important museum" stepped in to secure the painting.

For now, the buyer remains anonymous -- auction house Marc Labarbe and art specialist Turquin said in a statement that the work had been "sold privately to a foreign buyer," but that the purchase price and identity of the buyer were covered by a confidentiality agreement.

The final destination of the painting is also shrouded in mystery. Auctioneers said in a statement that "the painting will consequently be leaving French soil," but Turquin added that the painting would soon be displayed "in an important museum."

"We received an offer that could not be ignored and which we communicated to the owners of the painting. The fact that the offer came from someone close to an important museum convinced the sellers to accept," Turquin said in a statement.

The painting had been rigorously analyzed over five years, with special attention given to the work's technical, stylistic and historical detail to confirm its authenticity.

The work is believed to be the second on the same subject -- Caravaggio's first depiction of Judith and Holofernes painted circa 1600 hangs in Rome's Palazzo Barberini.

CNN's Emily Dixon and Euan McKirdy contributed to this report.

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