Woman Learns The ‘Fake’ Renaissance Painting She Kept Over Her Stove Was Actually A 700-Year-Old Masterpiece

Published June 2, 2024

"I immediately thought it was a work of Italian primitivism. But I didn't imagine it was a Cimabue," said the auctioneer who was first to examine the painting.

Mocking Of Christ

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty ImagesThe original painting by Renaissance artist Cimabue that was discovered in an elderly woman’s house in France.

When people clean out their house, they often find old treasures — like a favorite scarf that went missing or a precious letter from a beloved — that had been lost to time. But it’s not every day that one finds a 700-year-old painting worth millions of dollars.

According to Artnet News, a nonagenarian woman in Compiègne, France, recently discovered that a painting hanging above her stove was a real Renaissance masterpiece.

The painting, which the woman believed was a “knock off,” is suspected to be an original artwork by Renaissance painter Cenni di Pepo (also known as Cimabue) titled the Mocking of Christ. The painting is one of a three-paneled polyptych depicting the different stages of the Passion of the Christ.

The long-lost painting was discovered in June when the woman decided to sell her house along with some of her belongings. She contacted Actéon, a small auction house from the nearby town of Senlis, for an appraisal of the house’s contents. That’s when auctioneer Philomène Wolf first came across the supposed masterpiece.

“You rarely see something of such quality,” Wolf told Le Parisien. “I immediately thought it was a work of Italian primitivism. But I didn’t imagine it was a Cimabue.”

Wolf’s initial value estimation of the unsigned painting was that it could be worth up to 400,000 euros, or $440,000.

Portrait Of Cimabue

Getty ImagesA portrait of the Italian painter Cimabue.

But after bringing the piece to Eric Turquin, a well-known Old Master appraiser based in Paris, the painting’s value has skyrocketed 15 times higher than the original estimate.

Turquin, who is selling the painting in conjunction with the auction house, estimates that the Cimabue piece could sell for between 4 million and 6 million euros, the equivalent of between $4.4 million and $6.6 million.

While the newly recovered Cimabue painting has yet to be examined by other experts, the master expert is fully confident in his assessment. Proof of the painting’s authenticity, according to Turquin, comes from a rather unusual piece of evidence: worm holes.

He explained that all three panels that form Cimabue’s polyptych should show signs of being eaten by timber-loving larvae that dug a track through the panels.

Theoretically, if the holes align with each other and form a similar pattern against one another, then one can conclude that all three panels are part of the same piece.

“You can follow the tunnels made by the worms,” Turquin told Art Newspaper. “It’s the same poplar panel… We have objective proof it’s by the artist.”

The master expert has hailed the painting as “the only small-scale work of devotion that has been recently added to the catalogue of authentic works by Cimabue.”

Madonna Enthroned

Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty ImagesMadonna and Child Enthroned between Two Angels by Cimabue, one of the three panels of his polyptych creation.

It’s not the first time that Turquin has aided in the authentication — and subsequent sale — of a lost artistic treasure. In June, Turquin helped identify an original Caravaggio painting which, similar to the case of the Cimabue panel piece, was found in the attic of an old house in France.

The painting was slated to be sold at an auction for as much as $171 million before it was snatched up by a billionaire in a private sale.

Cimabue was a 13th-century Florentine painter who is widely recognized as the father of Western painting and is known for mentoring another famed Italian artist, Giotto di Bondone.

The two other panels that makeup Cimabue’s Passion of the Christ polyptych include the Flagellation of Christ, which hangs in the Frick Collection in New York, and the Madonna and Child Enthroned Between Two Angels, which is part of the National Gallery’s collection in London. Both paintings sold in the millions when they were purchased.

The newly discovered Cimabue is planned for auction at Actéon on Oct. 27 and will undoubtedly sell for a massive sum of money. But who knows, maybe we’ll hear of another priceless masterpiece uncovered by an unsuspecting house owner in France.

Next, read about the animal-shaped bottles with which archaeologists believe Neolithic parents used to feed their babies and discover why there’s a Prada store in the middle of the Texas desert.

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
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Ishak, Natasha. "Woman Learns The ‘Fake’ Renaissance Painting She Kept Over Her Stove Was Actually A 700-Year-Old Masterpiece." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 2, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/cimabue-mocking-of-christ. Accessed June 21, 2024.