Before being withdrawn from sale, lot 229, a small but luminous oil painting of Christ scourged, attributed to the circle of the 17th century Spanish artist José de Ribera, was to go under the hammer on Thursday in Madrid with an indicative price of € 1,500 (£ 1,300).

Further inspection, however, raised suspicions that the Crowning with Thorns could be the rather more valuable work of Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, leading the Spanish government to impose an export ban on the painting.

The canvas, which measures 111 cm by 86 cm, is currently being studied by experts to determine its paternity. The wrong attribution can be understandable: Ribera, the son of a shoemaker, studied in Rome and was a notorious follower of Caravaggio and an admirer of his use of chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.

Spain’s culture ministry said it moved quickly to place a precautionary export ban on the board after receiving a call from experts at Prado on Tuesday. Museum specialists said there was “enough stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it could be an original Caravaggio.

The ministry accepted the ban at an emergency meeting on Wednesday and informed the auction house, Ansorena, who withdrew the painting from Thursday night’s auction.

“Considering the speed at which all of this has happened, we now need a thorough technical and scientific study of the paint in question,” a source told the ministry. “There must be an academic debate as to whether Caravaggio’s attribution is plausible and accepted by the scientific community.”

painting - full frame
Crowning with Thorns looks a lot like a painting Caravaggio painted during the early part of his stay in Naples, says an expert. Photography:

Maria Cristina Terzaghi, professor of art history at the University of Rome and specialist in Caravaggio, said she believed the painting to be by Italian.

“It’s him,” she said. “The composition of the red in the purple mantle which covers Christ is the same as that of the photo of Salome with the head of John the Baptist in the Royal Palace of Madrid. ”

Terzaghi said the work “closely resembled” the painting Caravaggio painted during the early part of his stay in Naples.

A spokesperson for Ansorena said: “Different experts are studying the image to determine who painted it but I have no more information. In any case, the image has been placed under an export bar and cannot leave Spain. “