The ‘Toulouse Caravaggio’ which was sold in a private sale before its appearance at auction.

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The painting, Judith and Holofernes, was sold in a surprise deal for an undisclosed sum believed to be more than €30m (£27m) two days ahead of its planned auction last week.

The buyer has not been named but agents acting for the vendor said the “foreign buyer… will loan the picture to a museum”. France’s La Gazette Drouot reported that US collector J Tomilson Hill may have bought the picture that “could be presented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new European Painting galleries, due to open in a few months’ time”.

The picture, dated c.1607, was discovered in 2014 by auctioneer Marc Labarbe in the attic of a house in Toulouse where it had been for 150 years.

We received an offer that could not be ignored

It had been due to be auctioned at Hôtel des ventes Saint Aubin in Toulouse on June 27 with an estimate of €100m-150m but the pre-emptive deal was announced on June 25. Labarbe said: “We had everything organised to make the auction a grand event open to the public but our responsibility is to accept the decision of the sellers, our clients.”

Eric Turquin, the Old Master paintings specialist who helped research the work, said: “We received an offer that could not be ignored and which we communicated to the owners of the painting. The fact that the offer came from someone close to an important museum convinced the sellers to accept.”

The painting was exhibited in Milan, London, Paris, New York and Toulouse ahead of the sale this year and more than 20,000 people came to view it. The attribution to Caravaggio (1571-1610) has been supported by some but not all art historians.

The picture was deemed a national treasure in France in 2016 and had an export ban placed on it by the French government while the Louvre was given the chance to purchase the picture. It declined.

The export deadline expired last December allowing it to be moved out of France.