Spain blocked the auction of a 17th-century Biblical oil painting in Madrid on Thursday on suspicion it could be a lost masterpiece by the Renaissance artist Caravaggio.
Entitled "Coronation with Thorns", the canvas shows Jesus just before his crucifixion and was set to have been sold off later on Thursday at the Ansorena auction house.
Attributed in the catalogue to "the entourage of (Spanish artist) Jose de Ribera", it was marked with an opening price of 1,500 euros ($1,800).
But just hours before it went under the hammer, Culture Minister Jose Manuel Rodriguez Uribes said the painting had been declared "not for export... on suspicion it may be a Caravaggio".
"We are going to see if it is indeed a Caravaggio," he told reporters, saying the decision to withdraw the canvas from auction was made "within hours".
"The painting is valuable, we hope it's a Caravaggio," he said.
Ansorena confirmed it would not go under the hammer on Thursday, saying the ministry's decision meant it could not be removed from Spain.
"As to who painted it, different experts are studying the work and right now we have no further information," a spokeswoman told AFP.
- 'Not convinced' -
Experts were divided over whether it was a work by the Renaissance master.
"It's him," Maria Cristina Terzaghi, an Italian art history expert at Roma Tre University, told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.
She said the canvas had a "deep connection" with the works done at the start of Caravaggio's Neapolitan period, and that the cloak worn by Jesus in the painting was the same as the red used in Caravaggio's painting of "Salome with the head of John the Baptist".
The image of Pontius Pilate in the foreground was "reminiscent of the martyred St Peter in 'Madonna of the Rosary'" at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, she added.
But French old masters specialist Eric Turquin disagreed.
"I have not seen the painting. but I was not convinced at all by the photo of it. We can't be sure but I don't think this is by Caravaggio," he told AFP.
"I don't see Caravaggio's hand in this painting. The subject is certainly Caravaggio, and it was probably painted between 1600 and 1620 by a good painter, but not Caravaggio."
Spain's culture ministry was first alerted on Tuesday, a ministry source said, indicating Prado Museum had been in touch to say there was "sufficient documentary and stylistic evidence to consider that the painting... may be an original work by Caravaggio".
Following emergency talks, the painting was withdrawn from sale and declared "not for export".
- In-depth study -
"It is now necessary to carry out an in-depth technical and scientific study of the painting and engage in academic debate as to whether its attribution to Caravaggio is truly plausible and acceptable to the scientific community," the source said.
The ministry was also expecting Madrid's regional authorities to declare it a work of cultural interest to extend further protection under legislation governing Spain's heritage.
"We have asked the Madrid government to declare it an asset of cultural interest and with that double guarantee, we can ensure the painting stays in Spain," the minister told reporters.
It is not the first time a possible Caravaggio has been unearthed.
In 2014, a lost masterpiece by the artist called "Judith and Holofernes" was found under an old mattress in an attic in the French city of Toulouse. The biblical-style canvas depicted a beautiful Jewish widow beheading a sleeping Assyrian general.
Worth up to an estimated $170 million, the painting was due to go under the hammer in June 2019 but was snapped up by an anonymous foreign buyer just two days before auction.