Unknown La Tour portrait revealed by Prado

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An anonymous oil painting that languished for decades in a Madrid mansion has been identified as a major work by the 17th century French master, Georges de la Tour.

The Prado museum's experts hailed the unexpected find as "a fantastic discovery". The vibrantly fresh portrayal of Saint Jerome reading a letter, shows an elderly cleric studying a letter intently through lorgnettes.

The artist's mastery of light led Prado experts to identify the painting as an important work by the mature la Tour, executed around 1627.

The chance discovery was made by Cesar Antonio Molina, director of Spain's Cervantes Institute, the government's international cultural organisation. "When I took over, I asked for a list of all our artworks, and found this anonymous painting in our Madrid headquarters registered as Portrait of a Cardinal," Mr Molina said yesterday. "It seemed to me of artistic value, and I was curious about this letter, so I asked the Prado to evaluate it."

The painting hung for decades in the building formerly occupied by Spain's Foreign Ministry, shunted from office to office. The Cervantes Institute recently moved into the building: "but no one had ever taken the trouble to ask the experts to look at the work," Mr Molina said.

The painting was whisked to the Prado in March, where the museum's specialist historian Jose Milicua identified it instantly. "When I saw that painting, I thought 'I know you'. It was like recognising a member of the family," Mr Milicua said yesterday.

A tug of war in the art world is now likely. The Cervantes Institute wants to keep it, as does the Prado. And the Louvre's predatory instincts have also been aroused by such a major French masterpiece.