Deep in the storage depot of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp in Belgium lay an ancient painting.
Believed for generations to be a copy of "The Mocking of Samson" by famous Dutch artist Jan Steen, it had hung in storage, neglected, for decades.
The picture, which depicts a scene from the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, had once been considered genuine. But in the early 20th century, the museum declared the signature to be fake and the work was re-attributed to the renowned Flemish copyist Jacques Ignatius de Roore. The whereabouts of Steen’s original work remained unknown.
Everything changed in 2017 when the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands, was planning a new Jan Steen exhibition. Intrigued by the painting held in Antwerp, curator Ariane Van Suchtelen and paintings conservator Sabrina Meloni travelled to the Belgian art museum to examine it.
On first inspection, it did not look like a copy: the style was too similar to the great painter’s other works. And remarkably, the signature looked original too.
Meloni had an optical microscope that could magnify the painting by 400 times. But she knew this would not be enough. To discover if this really was an original, she needed to forensically compare chemical pigments in the paint to those in other Jan Steen originals. And for that, she needed a very powerful microscope.