FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters Life!) - Art experts have identified a small painting long abandoned in the vaults of a provincial Italian museum as a work by Renaissance master Raphael worth around 30 million euros ($40 million).
The portrait of a woman's head measuring 30 by 40 cm (12 by 16 inches) and long regarded as a 19th century copy is now believed to be a first draft by Raphael of part of a larger painting, The Holy Family (or 'The Pearl'), which hangs in Madrid's Prado museum.
Mario Scalini, acting supervisor of fine arts for the northern Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, said modern techniques been used to delve beneath restorations by painters in the 17th and 19th centuries to find the original work by Raphael.
The Holy Family was commissioned by the Count of Canossa and it is generally accepted that the composition of the painting was by Raphael but it was finished by one of his most prominent pupils, Giulio Romano.
"Raphael only had time to complete the sketch and the head which we have now attributed to him. Then Raphael died and the painting was finished by his pupil Giulio Romano: Cardinal Ippolito d'Este bought it but sold it again soon after, keeping only the authentic painting by Raphael," said Scalini.
The painting was among 27,000 works stashed in the vaults of the family museum of the Este family, which ruled the Duchy of Modena for four centuries until the mid-19th century.
The archive of the gallery, which dates back to 1663, listed a Madonna's head by Raphael but this was not included among the identified works, nor had it been sold or loaned out.
"The painting struck my attention because it had an enormous frame, carved and golden, of a very high value, certainly not appropriate for a banal 19th century copy," said Scalini. "Obviously, whoever chose the frame knew the real painter and the real value of the painting."
Scalini called in experts from an art laboratory in the town of Pisa, who used "multi-layer" technology to look beneath the paint added by subsequent artists.
"The historic reconstruction and research allow us to affirm with reasonable certainty that this is a work by Raphael," said Scalini. "This winter a drawing by Raphael sold at auction for 29 million euros and it is reasonable to estimate this Madonna's head is worth somewhat more."
Editing by Paul Casciato