Spain Halts Auction of Painting of Jesus After Evidence Indicates It Could Be a Rare Caravaggio

Government authorities in Spain prohibited the potential export of a painting that was previously set for auction later this week, after discovering that art piece could be a rare work created by Michelangelo Marisa da Caravaggio.

The Italian painter, active during the latter part of the 16th century and very early years of the 17th century, produced a number of widely celebrated pieces credited for their influence on the Baroque style. Caravaggio's paintings can be viewed at some of the world's most esteemed museums, including the Louvre in Paris, National Gallery in London, Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, and Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Although officials originally attributed the biblical painting to followers of 17th-century painter José de Ribera, Spain's culture minister, José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, tweeted in Spanish on Thursday that questions had arisen about its creator.

"It could be that, in the end, it's a painting by a disciple of Ribera, as it was said. But, in any case, our decision ... is very appropriate because the painting is very valuable," Rodríguez Uribes told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

"Hopefully it will be a Caravaggio," he added.

For additional reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Caravaggio, Auction, Spain
Spain's Ministry of Culture prohibited the auction of a painting on Thursday due to suspicions that its true creator could be famed Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Marisi da Caravaggio. In the photo, Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" oil painting is pictured at the National Gallery in London. VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

The oil-on-canvas work apparently depicts the Biblical passage of the Ecce Homo, in which Jesus Christ is presented to the crowds before being crucified. The 111-by-86-centimeter (44-by-34-inch) piece had been attributed to disciples of José de Ribera, a 17th-century Spanish painter who was fond of Caravaggio's work.

The painting was taken off the final list of items to be auctioned after Spanish authorities banned its possible export Thursday citing initial evidence that its real author could be the Italian master, Spain's Ministry of Culture said in a statement.

The price tag for an authentic Caravaggio would stretch into dozens of millions of euros (dollars), if not more.

The work still appears in the online catalog of Ansorena, a long-established Spanish auction house specializing in antique goods and jewelry, as "The Crowning with Thorns." The catalog says it can be attributed to the "circle of José de Ribera."

A so-called "tenebrist" who made dramatic use of light and shadow—like Caravaggio—especially in his young days, Ribera was nicknamed "Lo Spagnoletto," or the Little Spaniard, in Italy, where he pursued most of his career in the first half of the 17th century.

According to the ministry, the Prado National Museum in Madrid called the painting to the authorities' attention on Tuesday, after finding "enough documental and stylistic evidence" that it could have been painted by Caravaggio, who lived between Naples, Malta and Sicily from 1571 to 1610.

After a hastily convened meeting, the Culture Ministry informed the auction house of the export ban, a move allowed under Spanish laws to protect artifacts considered of "cultural interest."

The ministry said that considering the speed of the developments experts were going to undertake "a deep technical and scientific study" of the artwork and that academics would establish whether to attribute it to Caravaggio.