An early Renaissance painting by Cimabue that was found hanging in an elderly French woman’s kitchen has sold for a record-breaking €24 million (£20 million).

The tiny panel painting fetched four times more than the original estimate of €6 million (£5.3 million), setting a new world record for a medieval painting sold at auction.

Discovered this summer during a house clearance in northern France, the lost masterpiece never attracted much attention from the woman or her family. For many years they believed it was simply an old icon from Russia.

But auctioneer Philomene Wolf and old master expert Eric Turquin suspected otherwise. Subsequent research revealed that the painting was in fact Christ Mocked, “the only small-scale work of devotion that has been recently added to the catalogue of authentic works by Cimabue.

Also known as Cenni di Pepo, Cimabue (1240-1302) was a pioneering Italian painter and is known as the father of western art. There are only around ten fully accepted Cimabue works on panel known to have survived down the centuries, despite his extraordinary fame.

When a unique work of a painter as rare as Cimabue comes to market, you have to be ready for surprises,” explained the auctioneer and Director of Actéon Group, Dominique Le Coën.

On Sunday, 800 people gathered at the Actéon auction house in Senlis to witness the historical sale. According to Turquin, the painting received attention “from all the most prominent museums worldwide,” and “contemporary art collectors, whom we did not know, also showed a keen interest.

Silence fell as a bidding war erupted in the sale room, which caused the price to quickly soar. “There will never be another Cimabue at auction,” warned the auctioneer as the hammer dropped.

Measuring just 20cm by 26cm, the painting now ranks in the top 10 of most expensive old master painting sales alongside works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt and Raphael.

The winning bidder was the London-based dealer Fabrizio Moretti, who was acting on behalf of an anonymous buyer. “Cimabue is the beginning of everything,” remarked Moretti, who added: “When I held the picture in my hands, I almost cried.”

Reflecting on the importance of the sale, Le Coën declared “this record shows that today, a work of art can be sold anywhere in the world thanks especially to powerful platforms such as [the auction website] Interencheres.”