A small panel painting of Jesus hung over the hot plate in an elderly French woman's home for longer than she could remember. When the woman moved out in September, the painting was due to go to the dump (along with many of her other possessions), unless a local auctioneer could appraise and remove the work within the week.
On Sunday (Oct. 27), that painting — actually a lost work by the early Renaissance master Cimabue — sold at auction for $26.8 million.
According to the Actéon Auction House, where the painting sold, that's a new world record sum for a medieval painting sold at auction, and the highest price a European old master painting has earned at auction since the alleged Leonardo da Vinci work "Salvator Mundi" sold for $450 million in 2017. (Moral: Be careful what you hang over your hot plate.)
The 10-inch-high (25.4 centimeters) painting, called "The Mocking of Christ," shows a bedraggled Jesus surrounded by a horde of pushy men and was painted on a panel of poplar wood. Art historians believe the small work was part of an altarpiece completed in 1280, which would have hung somewhere in Europe (Cimabue was from Florence). Only two other panels from the series — the "Flagellation of Christ," which hangs in The Frick Collection in New York, and the "Madonna and Child Enthroned Between Two Angels," in The National Gallery in London — have been discovered, and there may be five more yet to find.
To verify the newfound painting's authenticity, researchers compared the distinct wormhole patterns on its back with those from the "Flagellation" and "Madonna" panels. "You can follow the tunnels made by the worms," art historian Eric Turquin told The Art Newspaper. "It's the same poplar panel."
Cimabue was active from 1272 to 1302. He was considered by 16th-century art biographer Giorgio Vasari to be the first European master to eschew the stiffness of Byzantine art in favor of the naturalistic style of the Renaissance. Also a teacher, Cimabue was eventually overshadowed by his most famous student, Giotto.
How the long-lost masterwork ended up in the woman's house, nobody knows. The woman, herself told The Guardian that the work had been in her family for so long that she never questioned its origin. She always assumed it was an old religious icon from Russia, she said.
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.