As It Happens

Painting found in French woman's kitchen believed to be 13th-century Cimabue worth millions

Paris art expert Stephane Pinta says a newly discovered painting must be an authentic Cimabue because X-ray analysis not only dates it back to the 13th century, but it is also a perfect fit with two other Cimabue paintings that are part of a diptych.

Art expert Stephane Pinta got 'goosebumps' when he saw it — but not everyone's convinced it's the real deal

This painting has found in a French kitchen is believed to be a rare 13th-century painting by Italian master Cimabue. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

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Art expert Stephane Pinta recently got a phone call that immediately piqued his interest.

An auctioneer was doing a routine house clearance at an elderly woman's home in northern France. There wasn't much of value in the house. But there was a small painting in the kitchen that she wanted to show Pinta.

"We had the goosebumps when we had the picture in hand," Pinta told As It Happens host Carol Off. "We just understood that this was something probably major." 

After examining the painting, Pinta says he now believes it is the work of 13th-century Italian painter Cimabue and likely worth millions.

Pinta is an art expert with Cabinet Turquin. The Paris-based firm and gallery specializes in Old Master paintings — so the auctioneer was right to call him.

Art expert Stephane Pinta said he got 'goosebumps' when he first held what believes to be the long-lost painting. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

As soon as he saw the painting, Pinta says he knew it was from a very early period. He was confident it was early Renaissance, and Cimabue came to mind.

"We thought it could be by Giotto or Duccio, or maybe earlier," Pinta said. "The only name that could be suggested, if we could confirm that that picture was earlier, is Cimabue — the great, the giant, Cimabue." 

Pinta says confirming it was an authentic Cimabue was rather painless because of two other existing Cimabue panels that are believed to make up a larger diptych, a style of art where separate panes are attached by a hinge.

This new panel is likely the missing third panel piece, he said. 

"We just have found a third piece," he said. "We know two pieces of this puzzle."

Pinta thinks the newly-discovered painting, centre, is part of larger diptych along with two other Cimabue paintings. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

The other two Cimabue panels are known as The Flagellation of Christ, which is currently part of the Frick Collection in New York, and The Virgin and Child, which is part of the collection at the National Gallery in London.

"The image of our painting is The Mocking of Christ," Pinta said. "In the centre of the composition you have Christ with a very quiet attitude and he is surrounded by a huge crowd of people, very angry."

Pinta says the dimensions and characteristics of all three panels are very similar.

"It was evident that the picture was by the same hand and was part of the same diptych," Pinta said. "You can reconstruct what was probably the position of the three paintings in the two wings of the diptych."

Pinta says an Cimabue painting has never been auctioned before and suspects it will fetch millions at auction. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Pinta says the painting is also an example of how Cimabue changed art history and pushed the limits of the Byzantine period, ushering in the more modern styles of the Renaissance.

"He just changes everything," Pinta said. "He introduced the movement. He introduced the perspective. And he introduced, too, the facial expressions in faces." 

The house where it was found dates back to the 1960s and Pinta says the woman who lived there assumed the painting was only a common religious icon — so tracing the history of how it ended up on her kitchen wall has proven difficult.

More appraisal needed, says art critic 

Pinta is not without his critics. Art reporter Jonathan Jones argued in the Guardian that more work needs to be done to prove the piece is an authentic Cimabue.

"Any unsigned painting found in a kitchen corridor surely needs lengthy appraisal by many different experts," he wrote. 

"What's worrying is the way this painting ... is being boldly called a Cimabue without wider discussion."

But despite the skeptics, Pinta doesn't waver in his claim.

"Every specialist that saw the picture here is absolutely astonished and nobody doubted the authenticity of the picture," Pinta said. "Surprisingly, it's in excellent condition. Excellent."

The painting will be auctioned in late October in France. Pinta estimates it will fetch between €4 to €6 million ($5.8 to $8.7 million Cdn).

"Honestly, there has never been any picture by Cimabue at auction, never."

Written by John McGill. Produced by Kate Cornick.

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