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A New Old Master

November 30, 2022
A portrait of Moses sold in Paris on November 25th at Chayette & Cheval for €590,000. Possibly by the Italian Baroque master Guercino

Moses, possibly by the Italian Baroque master Guercino

It’s not every day that you find a forgotten painting by one of the Old Masters. But that is definitely the case for the Italian baroque painter Guercino. It seems like someone suddenly rediscovers one of his portraits or religious scenes every other year. It happened in 2016 when Italian actor Federico Castelluccio bought a Saint Sebastian painting that later turned out to be a Guercino worth about $10M. Then it happened in 2017 when someone offered an art collector in Morocco a painting he later recognized as a Guercino altarpiece stolen from a church in Modena several years before. In 2020, an art dealer purchased a painting labeled as a 17th-century Dutch work at Doyles in New York and later discovered it was Guercino’s Aurora, created in 1662. And now it’s happened again, but this time in Paris.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, the Paris auction house Chayette & Cheval hosted a “thematic sale” featuring jewelry, furniture, and a few paintings. Lot 42 was a religious portrait labeled Moses, attributed to a painter of the 17th-century Bologna school, likely a student of Guido Reni. The painting was estimated to sell for no more than €6K. I suppose most people were taken aback when the painting sold for €590K (or $610K) hammer. The buyer, whoever they may be, may have suspected the portrait to be a forgotten masterwork by Guercino, since the auction house specialists had considered him as one of the possible creators of the work. And there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that this claim is true. Firstly, a very similar painting appeared at auction in Venice in 2001. It was a copy of the original by the Italian baroque painter Benedetto Zallone, one of Guercino’s students. Additionally, a different work by Guercino known as Head of an Old Man is housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and contains many similarities to the painting sold in Paris last weekend.

Jorge Coll of the Colnaghi Gallery commented on the sale, noting how not only does the painting sold in Paris contain many similarities to work at the Ashmolean Museum, but also Guercino’s Elijah Fed by Ravens, kept at the National Gallery in London. Therefore, he feels confident that Moses could be positively attributed to the Italian baroque master. Guercino’s auction record is currently £5.2M w/p (or $7.86M w/p) when King David sold at Christie’s London in 2010. So, if this forgotten masterwork receives a positive attribution from a reputable source, who knows what sort of hammer price it might achieve next?