Casa Ansorena received millionaire offers for the course caravaggio which was going to auction with a starting price of 1,500 euros from March 18, the day the exhibition opened, showing the lots that were going to be sold between April 8 and 10. “As soon as I saw the painting I got very nervous, I knew it could be a caravaggio that I was lost ”, he says the antiquarian Nicolás Cortés, another of the collectors who from the outset did not accept the attribution to the circle of the painter José Ribera (17th century) that appeared in the auction catalog. He did not hesitate for a second, he went to the auction house, saw the piece and offered a million and a half euros. He was not the only one. Cortés assures that two Italian collectors offered three and six million euros. The Robilant + Voena antique dealers in collaboration with the Italian dealer Fabrizio Moretti raised the bid to more than 23 million euros, according to various sources in the sector.
For Cortés it was not a surprise to find so many bids and for those quantities, accustomed to buying and selling parts in the international market. “In Spain it is not so common,” he acknowledges. In his case, he had to talk to “some financial friends” to get him the amount he offered. If his offer had been successful, once the painting was obtained, restored and sold in an amount estimated between 120 and 150 million euros, the lenders would receive 15% and the rest would go to Cortés. “If the painting were not linked to Spain and were in New York or London it would be worth 150 or 200 million euros. Unfortunately it is limited to the Spanish market, now it could cost between 20 or 30 million in Spain ”, coincides in his calculation the Italian collector Moretti.
“If we had come to buy the painting, and they had given us export, although we have two restorers on the payroll, in the eyes of the market it is better to look for specialists who have already worked with Caravaggio paintings,” explains Cortés. “So that the client stays more calm.” The antique dealer, who assures that in this case he would have personally managed the sale, believes that the piece could have ended up at the Met in New York or at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Nor does it rule out private buyers or benefactors who acquire pieces of art and then donate them to museums. “Although I think it should end at the Prado,” says Cortés.
In Italy, several people also mobilized to try to buy the painting before the Ministry of Culture stopped the auction and declared it unbearable on Thursday, April 8, hours before the bidding began. Antonello di Pinto, an art expert professor who advises antique dealers and collectors as an intermediary in this type of purchase, saw the work in the Ansorena catalog in mid-March and was struck by its quality, so he decided to request a report more detailed to those responsible for the sale. Aware that the piece could fetch a value much higher than the starting price, he sent the image to an Italian antiquarian, who was immediately interested in the painting and went to Madrid to see it. “If we buy it, we succeed,” Di Pinto explains who told him. In this type of operation he is normally awarded a commission of 5%.
The high interest of the antiquarian alerted Di Pinto, who decided to send the work also to various art critics. One of them, Nicola Spinosa, who specialized in seventeenth-century painting, told him that the painting was too dirty and he did not venture to adjudicate an authorship. And another, Vittorio Sgarbi, immediately answered that it was a caravaggio. At the same time, he learned that offers were arriving to acquire the work, “some even millionaires,” he points out. But the antique dealer to whom he had pointed the piece to offer a bid “could not reach such a high figure,” he says. “The first failure was of the auction house, which was selling a Ferrari at the price of a Volkswagen,” he laments.
One of those people who had a millionaire check was Moretti, who teamed up with Robilant + Voena to take the bid to its maximum with more than 23 million euros to stop the auction. Moretti, in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS, confirms that there was a lot of movement from everywhere, “the painting was on everyone’s lips in the environment.” When he checked the starting price in the catalog he thought: “Life is beautiful and full of possibilities.” So he tried to act quickly to buy the painting and try to get it out of Spain. But according to the collector’s account, he and his partners were late. The painting had already been removed. One more day EL PAÍS has contacted Casa Ansorena to find out their version of events, but they have refused to make any statements.