SENLIS, France — A tiny early Renaissance masterpiece that an elderly French woman kept in her kitchen — and that could have easily ended up at the dump, if not for an eagle-eyed auctioneer — set a new world record for a medieval work, after selling at auction for more than $26 million.
The long-lost painting, Christ Mocked, is the work of the 13th-century Florentine painter Cimabue and is believed to be the first painting of his ever to be brought to auction. Initial estimates priced the work at $7 million, but the sale late last month blew those estimates out of the water after starting a bidding war; it ended up selling to an anonymous French buyer for $26.6 million, and setting the new world record.
The painting is the missing counterpart to an altarpiece depicting eight scenes from the Passion of Christ, according to Eric Turquin, the Paris-based expert who authenticated the work. The altarpiece also includes Cimabue’s Flagellation of Christ, which is now in the Frick Collection in New York, and The Virgin and Child With Two Angels in London’s National Gallery.
The Actéon auction house in Senlis, which handled the sale, said that the woman had always assumed the painting was a cheap reproduction and kept it hung above the hotplate in her home since the 1960s. It had never attracted much attention from the woman, now in her 90s, or her family, who thought it was simply an old icon from Russia.
In June, when the woman decided to sell her house and move away, an expert at Senlis auctioneers was contacted to look at the contents of the house in case some of it could be sold before everything was taken to the dump. The auctioneer spotted the painting, which is only 8 inches by 10 inches, and suggested the owner have the work assessed.
Actéon said that the sale was the biggest for a medieval painting and the eighth highest for a medieval or old master painting. The painting now ranks alongside works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt and Raphael in the top 10 of most expensive old painting sales.
“When a unique work of a painter as rare as Cimabue comes to market, you have to be ready for surprises,” said Dominique Le Coent, who heads the Actéon auction house. “This is the only Cimabue that has ever come on the market.”