A long-lost masterpiece valued at more than £128 million has gone on show in London before being sold at auction.
The painting by Italian master Caravaggio is believed to have lain forgotten in an attic in Toulouse, France, for about a century until it was discovered five years ago.
Today it emerged the rediscovery was even more miraculous than originally believed, after auctioneer Marc Labarbe revealed it was almost stolen by burglars a few years before it was identified.
Mr Labarbe said burglars broke into the farmhouse and stole items including bottles of perfume but left the painting, which was gathering dust against a wall between some old clothes and unused crockery, believing it be worthless.
Guests and members of the media listen to a presentation on ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Caravaggio during a press event to promote the upcoming sale of the work at auction
Speaking at the unveiling of the work at the Colnaghi gallery, Mr Labarbe joked the burglars had not deemed the painting ‘adequate’ enough to steal it.
He said: ‘One of my clients was clearing his attic and he needed two men to help him. It took a year to sell all the antiquities.
‘Clocks, toys, pieces of religion, in good and bad condition, clothes, crockery, as well as many things of no interest. Everything was very dusty.
‘I have to tell you that a few years before, burglars broke into the attic and stole many things, included eau de parfum bottles. Fortunately, our painting was not adequate.’
He added: ‘On the 23rd of April 2014, late in the morning, my client called me again because he had found a painting and wanted my opinion on it.
‘I went to his house and climbed the stairs to the landing of the attic where the painting was displayed.
‘At this moment there was what was like a fog across the whole canvas.
‘The painting was blurry and it was almost impossible to see the details, but I was impressed by the state of the composition.’
The painting was dramatically unveiled today at the Colnaghi Gallery on Bury Street in London
According to Paris-based art appraiser Eric Turquin, the work was painted in 1607.
It depicts the biblical tale of Judith, a widow from the city of Bethulia, who breaks the siege of her home by seducing the Assyrian leader and beheading him.
It will be sold without reserve on June 27 in Toulouse at the La Halle aux Grains, with Mr Labarbe saying: ‘This magnificent story began in Toulouse. It has to continue in Toulouse.’
The painting is Caravaggio’s second version of the same subject, with the first painted in Rome around 1600.
The 57in by 69in canvas depicts the moment, told in a biblical story, when chaste widow Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes to defend the city of Bethulia.
It has undergone extensive scientific analysis including x-rays as part of the process of authentication before it could be sold.
Caravaggio is famous for his dramatic use of light and shade, an artistic technique called chiaroscuro. This lost work is one of several he painted about the bible story
Caravaggio’s mastery of shadow and light, known as chiaroscuro, heralded the onset of the brooding Baroque style that flourished for 150 more years and produced the likes of Rubens and Rembrandt.
But he was a hot-tempered genius who was wanted for murder, ‘notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behaviour was commonplace,’ according to the Caravaggio Foundation.
The discovery means there are now 68 known paintings attributed to the artist, who was born in 1571 and died in 1610 of suspected lead poisoning from his paint.
Judith And Holofernes will be on display at the Colnaghi gallery on Bury Street from tomorrow until March 9.