Mystery Buyer of Work Attributed to Caravaggio Revealed
The American billionaire hedge fund manager and art collector J. Tomilson Hill is the mysterious buyer of an early 17th-century canvas billed as a rediscovered masterpiece by Caravaggio, according to a person with knowledge of the sale.
The painting, “Judith and Holofernes,” depicts a scene from the Old Testament’s Book of Judith in which a Jewish widow saves her besieged city by tempting and then beheading an Assyrian general.
The unsigned artwork was estimated to sell on Thursday in Toulouse, France, for at least $110 million, the highest auction price ever achieved for any artwork in Europe. But on Tuesday, the auctioneers Marc Labarbe and Eric Turquin announced that the painting had sold to a collector outside France and that the auction had been canceled.
That collector is Mr. Hill, who recently retired as a vice chairman of the private equity firm Blackstone and who has amassed a noteworthy collection of Modern and contemporary art as well as old masters. Mr. Hill serves on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in February opened his own private museum, the Hill Art Foundation, in Chelsea. The Foundation’s first show featured the contemporary artist Christopher Wool (Mr. Hill owns 14 of his paintings). Mr. Hill was unavailable for comment.
How much Mr. Hill agreed to pay for the artwork will not be disclosed under the terms of a confidentiality agreement surrounding the purchase. The auctioneers said earlier this week that the price was more than the planned auction’s minimum bid of 30 million euros, or about $34 million.
The painting is expected to be lent to a major institution such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Hill, who goes by Tom, and his wife, Janine, the director of fellowship affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, have lent much of their collection to major institutions over the years. Their significant collection of bronzes was featured in an exhibition at the Frick Collection in 2014. More recently, the Hills lent their Florentine Renaissance masterwork, “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap,” by Jacopo Pontormo, to the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy; the Morgan Library & Museum and the Getty.
Mr. Labarbe, an auctioneer based in Toulouse, found “Judith and Holofernes” in an attic there. Mr. Turquin, a specialist dealer in old masters based in Paris, who collaborated with Mr. Labarbe for the sale, conducted five years of painstaking research, determining it to be a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece. (Mr. Turquin, contacted by email, declined to comment on the sale.)
The painting is not without complications, given the ongoing debate about its authenticity. Cataloged as having been made in Naples in about 1607, it has been viewed by a number of specialists at the Pinacoteca di Brera museum in Milan in 2016 and 2017. “The touch of the brush screamed out Caravaggio,” the museum’s director, James Bradburne, told The New York Times.
Among those who have confirmed the painting’s authenticity are Keith Christiansen, the chairman of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Christiansen said in a report that the picture was “fully consistent with the work of Caravaggio,” except for one area where the execution was untypical, suggesting the possible “intervention of a second hand.”
Similar questions have been raised about “Salvator Mundi,” the reputed and rediscovered masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, which Christie’s sold in 2017 to a close ally of a Saudi prince for $450.3 million, the highest price paid for a work of art at auction.
The Caravaggio was shown at Colnaghi gallery in London in February, at Kamel Mennour gallery in Paris in April and at Adam Williams Fine Art gallery in New York in May.
If it is indeed by Caravaggio, the painting would become one of just six by the painter — out of a total of 69 — in private hands.
“I think it was begun by Caravaggio and finished by another artist,” said Fabrizio Moretti, a leading old masters dealer in London. Because fully authenticated works by the artist are exceptionally rare, he added, “it’s the most important painting associated with Caravaggio to have appeared on the market for 20 years.”
Scott Reyburn contributed reporting from London.