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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.