How This $600k Rubens Painting Ended Up in South Africa

Rubens paintings, Galerie Médicis, the Louvre
Rubens paintings, Galerie Médicis, the Louvre | © Randy Connolly / Flickr
Gill Lange

Portrait of a Gentleman by Old Master Sir Peter Paul Rubens is about to be auctioned in South Africa. The piece, with an estimated value of $600k, came to light in a leafy Johannesburg suburb in September last year. This is the story of how it got there.

A miraculous discovery

It’s not every day that a Rubens is sold in South Africa, and the painting has attracted its fair share of admirers. It’s also unusual to uncover an old masterpiece hanging casually on an otherwise rather normal wall. However, this is what happened on the day fine-art expert Luke Crossley accepted an invitation for coffee at a private residence in Johannesburg.

The painting had been part of a private collection since the 1930s and was accompanied by a letter, which led its owners to believe the old guy hanging on the wall may be worth something. Crossley was not optimistic at first, but soon realised the value of his find.

Peter Paul Rubens self-portrait

Working back in time

With the help of national archives and a few others, Crossley worked backwards in time, tracing the painting through documents, letters, articles and auction histories. He followed the painting all the way back to 1740 when it first appeared on auction in Belgium. Later it travelled to Amsterdam, London, Germany and finally South Africa, when it is thought to have been smuggled into the country by a Jewish paediatrician seeking asylum from socialist forces.

Peter Paul Rubens The Feast of Acheloüs

It was not the only painting in the fleeing doctor’s possession, and after selling one to buy a house in South Africa, he stashed the Rubens away. It was subsequently passed down from one family generation to another, and was known as ‘that funny man’, until its unexpected resurrection last year.

The gentleman’s history

Crossley believes that the portrait, that is unsigned and depicts an unknown character, was painted well over 400 years ago, sometime between 1598 and 1609. Although it has been positively identified as a Rubens since at least 1925, before that there appears to have been debate on whether it may have been brushed by the lesser-known Frans Pourbus the Younger. However this, together with the unnamed gentleman in the portrait, only adds to the mystery.

More about the Old Master

Flemish-born Rubens is renowned for work that merges classical art with renaissance themes, and a Rubens piece is highly revered in the art world. In the Louvre, a single hall is dedicated to this Old Master’s work. Another of his paintings to be auctioned in July 2018 is expected to fetch in the region of R90 million ($6.5 million).

Rubens display, Louvre

Auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co have estimated the value of Portrait of a Gentleman at between R5 million and R8 million ($362k and $580k), but what it will actually fetch at a soon-to-be-held silent auction is anyone’s guess.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.