Pair of unknown Caravaggios found in church

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The French town of Loches in central France was last night celebrating the discovery of two works by the Italian old master Michelangelo Merisi, more widely known as Caravaggio. The paintings were stored under the organ loft of the Church of Saint Antoine de Loches until a local curator became curious about a coat of arms on the works.

Jose Freches, a Caravaggio expert who studied the find for seven years before confirming the works' authenticity said he was shocked to have discovered them. "This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime," he told the AFP news agency.

One painting shows Saint Thomas putting his finger in Christ's wound, and another shows Christ at Emmaus.

"A series of technical clues, added to the painterly quality of the works, leave me with no choice but to say they are originals," Monsieur Freches said.

Some scepticism remains , as two paintings by Caravaggio treating the same themes are currently on display in London's National Gallery (Supper at Emmaus) and in the Neues Palais in Potsdam (The Incredulity of Saint Thomas).

The hunt for the origin of the paintings led investigators to the owner of the coat of arms, Philippe de Bethune, a minister of France's King Henry IV, and an enthusiastic art collector who befriended Caravaggio in Rome.

It is thought the paintings were probably half of a batch of four bought by Bethune, for which an inventory survives, kept in the national archive in Paris.

Caravaggio, a notorious brawler who fled Rome after killing a rival in a duel, was born in about 1570 and found dead on a beach in 1610. He is one of the highest-regarded Italian masters, whose biblical scenes, in tight detail, and mastery of light and darkness are considered revolutionary.