“A Philosophical Reading” by Fragonard was discovered by Antoine Petit, an auctioneer at Enchères Champagne auction house in Épernay, northeastern France, when called to assess an inheritance in an apartment near town, he told CNN on Tuesday.
Petit saw the painting – measuring 45.8 by 57 centimeters (18 by 22.4 inches) – high on a dust-covered wall.
“I thought it was beautiful,” he said.
After removing the painting for a closer look, he found the word “Fragonard” written on the back in black ink, Petit added.
The owners, who had had the painting in the family for generations without including it in a will, gave it to Petit, who had it valued by Cabinet Turquin, a Paris-based company of painting experts.
“I couldn’t be entirely sure myself,” said Petit. added that Cabinet Turquin’s team confirmed it was an authentic Fragonard.
“Despite the dust deposits and the yellow varnish on the canvas, the power of his painting remains clearly visible,” says Stephane Pinta of Cabinet Tuequin in one of the company’s auction catalogs.
Fragonard painted “A Philosophical Reading” around 1768-70. Recognition: Stephane De Sakutin / AFP / Getty Images
According to the catalog, “the painting has been passed on from generation to generation, but over time the attribution has been forgotten.”
Fragonard lived from 1732-1806 and is considered one of the most emblematic painters of the 18th century.
The oval oil-on-canvas painting shows a white-haired man bending over a book. Petit told CNN that this particular painting is from 1768-70.
During that time, Fragonard had finished his apprenticeship and painted whatever he wanted instead of doing commissioned work for clients, Petit said.
Around the same time, Fragonard also produced a number of imaginary portraits, and “this is probably one of the earliest examples,” says the auction catalog.
The painting has been in the same family for more than 200 years and appears to have rarely been handled or moved, said Cabinet Turquin, adding that it is “in a remarkable state of preservation.”
Owners had no idea of its value, Petit said, but avid bidders drove the final sale price well beyond the estimate of 1.5-2 million euros ($ 1.8-2.4 million).
Ten years ago the painting wouldn’t have sold nearly as much, but today, such work is much more in vogue, Petit said. “The planets are aligned if you will,” he added.
Petit declined to name the successful buyer.
The story is reminiscent of the long-lost work of the Dutch master Otto van Veen (1556-1629) from the 16th century, which was found in a closet in Iowa in 2016.
The grubby oil-on-wood panel of nude mythological figures didn’t seem very valuable to Robert Warren, manager of the Hoyt Sherman Place art complex in Des Moines, but it turned out the painting was likely worth millions of dollars.