A small oil painting that avoided being sold at a Spanish auction for €1,500 earlier this year after experts suggested it could be the work of the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has been granted protected status as an item of cultural interest.
The painting of the scourged Christ, which measures 111cm by 86cm, was withdrawn from sale in April after suspicions grew that it had been incorrectly attributed to the circle of the 17th-century Spanish artist José de Ribera.
Experts at the Prado museum in Madrid, who raised the alarm, believe there is “sufficient stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest it could be an original Caravaggio, meaning it could be worth as much as €50m (£42m).
On Wednesday, six months after Spain’s culture ministry imposed a precautionary export ban on the painting, the regional government of Madrid formally declared the work a bien de interés cultural, or item of cultural interest.
It described the painting as “an example of the excellence and pictorial mastery of the Italian naturalism” that had a great influence on the Madrid school of painting in the 17th century.
“Elements such as the psychological depictions of the characters, the realism of the faces, the luminous force that illuminates the body of Christ, the interplay of the three characters and the communication it establishes with the viewer make this a work of great artistic interest,” the regional government said in a statement.
It said the work deserved protection whoever its painter was, but that the evidence pointed towards the Italian genius.
“The information that has appeared over the past few months, together with the studies undertaken by experts, reinforces the theory that it is the work of Caravaggio,” the statement said.
The painting’s protected status means that its owners – the three children of Antonio Pérez de Castro, the founder of Madrid’s IADE design school, and the artist Mercedes Méndez Atard – must inform the authorities if they decided to sell it to allow the regional government to decide if it wishes to make an offer.