SPAIN’S Culture Ministry imposed a last minute export ban on an oil painting that was nearly sold for €1,500 in a bid to determine whether it could be a long-lost masterpiece by Caravaggio.

The Madrid auction house Ansorena said it had withdrawn the painting identified as “The Crown of Thorns” after being told that the work could not be exported until experts determined its provenance.

The painting had a reserve price of just €1,500 but the sale was pulled after experts from the Prado lobbied the government to place an emergency export ban while they studied it.

It is currently attributed to an unnamed artist within the studio of 17th century Spanish painter Jose de Ribera, but there is some hope it could turn out to be an original Caravaggio and therefore worth upwards of €50 million.

“Let’s study if it is a Caravaggio, or was painted by a follower of Ribera, as previously attributed,” Culture Minister Jose Manuel Rodriguez Uribes said in a press conference on Thursday.

“Either way, the decision (to ban export) was right because the painting is valuable,” he added.

The artwork had reportedly been hanging on the wall of a Madrid collector who had acquired it in the 70s before being put up for sale by his heirs.

But according to research by the Prado, there’s a possibility that the painting could be one of two works by Caravaggio brought to Spain between 1657 and 1659 by the Count of Castrillo, a Spanish nobleman who was viceroy of Naples when southern Italy was part of the Spanish Empire.

It’s discovery has caused excitement across the art world and heated debate over whether it could really be a lost work of the Italian master.

Vittorio Sgarbi, a prominent art critic and museum curator in Italy, is convinced it is indeed a Caravaggio.

“The price could be €100-150 million if it was sold to a private buyer and €40-50 million if it was sold to the Prado,” he told Corriere della Sera newspaper.While Nicola Spinosa, an authority on Neapolitan art of the 17th century, said: “I don’t think it’s a Caravaggio. I believe the painting is a work of high quality by a follower of Caravaggio’s style.”

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