The art dealer who bet £500,000 on a hunch, and ended up with a long-lost Old Master worth millions

A seemingly insignificant painting sold in 2022 turned out to be a lost masterpiece — and it's now on display in Britain. Carla Passino tells the tale.

As far as hidden masterpieces go, it was a pretty big one. When an arresting depiction of Moses, his eyes and hands raised towards God, went under the hammer in Paris in 2022, it was deemed to be the work of an unknown follower of 17th-century painter Guido Reni (and estimated accordingly at €5,000–€6,000).

However, several dealers thought it might be a ‘sleeper’ (a misattributed, undervalued piece), so much so that it eventually sold for €590,000 (around £503,000) to Moretti Fine Art.

It was quite the gamble to pay 100 times over the auctioneer’s estimate, but it paid off handsomely. Painstaking restoration and research by Moretti’s experts revealed that their hunch was right: Moses was  to be an early work by Guercino (1591–1666), painted probably in 1618–19, when the (not yet) Old Master was still living in his native Cento, near Bologna, Italy.

First mentioned in 1624 as part of the collection of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este, the painting had long disappeared and was only known through copies.

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Moses has since been acquired (for about £1.7 million) by the Jacob Rothschild Foundation and forms the centrepiece of a Guercino exhibition now on at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire.

The exhibition also features the country house’s own King David and three Sybil paintings on loan from the National Gallery and the Royal Collection. ‘Guercino at Waddesdon: King David and the Wise Women’ runs until October 27, 2024 see for more details.

King David, by Guercino, is also on display at Waddesdon. Credit: Private collection / Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images via Getty Images