Now classified as a ‘national treasure’, the state has 30 months to make an offer to acquire the work from its current owner.
Under French law, the painting is not permitted to leave the country during this period and the authorities have the right to renew the export restriction if the owner refuses to accept the state’s purchase offer.
The applicant cannot claim for compensation for any refusal or delay of the export.
At the sale in Senlis, around 50 miles from Paris, on October 27, the Cimabue panel was estimated at €4m-6m but drew dramatic competition well above this level, setting a record for a medieval panel and becoming the eighth most expensive Old Master ever sold.
With bidding from six or seven interested parties, it was knocked down to London dealership Moretti who was reportedly bidding on behalf of the US-based Chilean collectors Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán who together formed the Alana Collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is also thought to have been among the underbidders.
The French cultural ministry is understood to have had a representative at the auction with a budget of around €15m to ‘pre-empt’ the work (a practice which gives a museum or institution the right to purchase items at the price established by the bidding).
The final price including buyer’s premium was €24.18m (£20.9m).
The mocking of Christ was discovered during a house clearance in the town of Compiegne when it was spotted by one of Actéon’s specialists, Philomène Wolf, hanging in a client’s kitchen. It was only the 12th known work by Cimabue to have ever emerged and was the first work fully attributed to the Florentine early Renaissance master to be offered at auction.
The 10 x 8in (26 x 20cm) tempera with gold background on poplar panel was believed to be a religious icon by its owner but, according to appraiser and Old Master paintings expert Éric Turquin who authenticated the picture, it was part of an important altar series by Cimabue that includes The Flagellation of Christ (now in the Frick Collection in New York) and The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (now in the National Gallery in London).
The elderly woman who had previously owned the Cimabue died two days after the sale. Her three heirs will have an inheritance tax of around €9m should the sale eventually be completed.