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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
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 © Musea en Erfgoed Antwerpen / WikiCommons

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 © Irina / Flickr

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 © daryl_mitchell / Flickr

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.