A controversial painting, supposedly by Caravaggio (1571-1610), has been purchased by a mystery buyer just two days before it was due to be sold at auction. “Judith and Holofernes” was sold for an unknown price, although it was expected to fetch at least US$110 million (£86.5 million).

In 2014, the large oil painting was discovered under an old mattress inside an attic in the French city of Toulouse. The anonymous owners swiftly brought the well-preserved artwork to their local dealer, Marc Labarbe.

It’s not every day one finds a treasure like this in the attic. It was unnoticed for so long and remained in such good condition. It seems so improbable”, enthused Labarbe.

The dealer was initially unexcited about the painting, but after closer inspection Labarbe contacted Paris-based auctioneer, Eric Turquin, who specialises in Old Masters. Three months later, Turquin concluded that it was indeed by the renowned Italian painter.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio enjoyed great fame during his lifetime for his highly dramatic paintings, characterised by their dramatic use of light and shade (known as chiaroscuro) and rapid execution. He was said to be arrogant, passionate, and even a murderer. Yet, after his death he was largely forgotten by art historians, which caused many of his works to fall into obscurity.

Speaking about its discovery, Labarbe said “this story is beautiful, and this story makes us dream. But what really makes us dream is the painting. It really is a wonder. We are very lucky“.

The captivating, albeit gruesome, painting depicts the Jewish heroine Judith decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes. It is recorded in the studio of Caravaggio in a 1607 letter from the Flemish painter Frans Pourbus the Younger. Scientific studies also reveal a complete concordance of the painting with other known works by Caravaggio.

Despite this, some critics doubt the authenticity of the painting, especially those from Italy. Caravaggio expert, Mina Gregori, believed the Caravaggio painting is a copy by the Flemish artist Louis Finson. Gregori described the debate surrounding the artwork as “not a dilemma, not necessarily a surprise since opinions on the attribution are divided“.

Last Tuesday (25 June), Labarbe and Turquin announced the cancellation of the auction as they had sold the 17th century painting privately. A confidentiality clause means the identity of the buyer and the final purchase price will remain unknown.

The only certainty provided by the dealers is that the painting will “soon be exhibited in an important museum” where it will “finally come into the light for all to see “.