“Oh, that old thing . . . !” Year in, year out, an elderly French woman walked past a 10-inch board hanging in her open kitchen-dining room. She knew little about the decorative piece of religious art. But this fall, the painting made her a multimillionaire.
Christ Mocked depicts Jesus surrounded by men. Arms are outstretched, swords drawn. In the center, Jesus appears grieved. The painting is by 13th-century Italian artist Cimabue, or Cenni di Pepo.
Cimabue was a pioneer in art history. He broke from the popular style of the Middle Ages by including movement and angles in his work. His style led the way for later artists to develop a sense of perspective in painting. Those elements eventually became common in Western European painting.
The woman thought the gold-leafed image was unimportant. She couldn’t remember where she’d gotten the high-priced treasure—or how it had come to be hanging over a hotplate.
Those who know Jesus possess treasure too. The treasure in their souls is “the knowledge of the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7) That is a treasure that neither moth, rust, nor time can corrupt.
Auctioneer Philomène Wolf spotted the 10-by-8-inch painting this summer. She’d been inspecting the contents of the woman’s house in northern France. Wolf told a French newspaper that any items not selected for sale were headed to the town dump.
Wolf realized the painting was something of value. She suggested having it appraised. “You rarely see something of such quality,” Wolf says. “But I didn’t imagine it was a Cimabue.”
Dominique Le Coent of Acteon Auction House sold the painting to an anonymous buyer. Art watchers expected a sale from $4.4 million to $6.6 million. Instead, the image sold for $26.6 million! Le Coent says that was a “world record for a . . . pre-1500 work.”
“There’s never been a Cimabue painting on sale,” Le Coent explains. “So there was no reference previously on how much it could make.”
Art experts say the painting is part of a multi-paneled altarpiece that Cimabue painted around 1280. Two other Cimabue panels are in the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery in London. Experts compared the colors, sizes, styles—even the wormholes in the wood panels. Paris art expert Stephane Pinta also compared likenesses in facial expressions and buildings—as well as techniques for showing light and distance. Everything fit: This painting was Cimabue’s.
Art consultant Alexis Ashot calls the discovery of this masterpiece groundbreaking for the art world. “It’s wonderful to be reminded that there are paintings of such major importance that are still out there . . . to be discovered,” he says.