A painting sold as an unexceptional work by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art five years ago has gone up for sale with an estimate of £3m-£5m after experts concluded it was by Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish master considered one of the greatest artists of his era.
The poignant family portrait of a confident-looking Clara Serena, Rubens’s first child and only daughter with his wife Isabella Brant, is thought to have been painted in 1623, around the time of her death from the plague at the age of 12. It was unlikely to have been intended for public view.
The work is now to be sold at Christie’s in its July 5 London sale; the auction house put it on display in New York this week ahead of viewing in Hong Kong starting on May 24.
Based on a reassessment of the work in the 1940s by the art historian Julius Held, the Met had assumed the painting was by a “follower of Rubens”, and put it up for sale in 2013 with an auction estimate of $20,000-$30,000 to raise money for new acquisitions.
Competitive bidding in the sale drove the price up to $626,500 — an indication the buyer may have suspected it was a much more valuable work by Rubens himself. Christie’s declined to identify the current owner, who wished to remain anonymous.
It’s as brilliant a portrait as one would expect to see by Rubens. It’s painted entirely in his manner and technique
After the buyer had the painting cleaned — involving the removal of layers of dirt and green overpaint — scholars re-inspected the work and were convinced it was by Rubens. It was exhibited as such at the Rubens House museum in Antwerp in 2015 and appeared at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh in November last year.
Bendor Grosvenor, an art expert and former dealer who last year identified a Rubens portrait of the first Duke of Buckingham in a National Trust for Scotland house in Glasgow, said he had “never been in any doubt” the Clara Serena painting was by Rubens. “It’s as brilliant a portrait as one would expect to see by Rubens. It’s painted entirely in his manner and technique.”
Even before the painting’s sale by the Met, some experts had believed it to be by Rubens, Mr Grosvenor said. Instead of selling it, he said, the museum should have subjected the work to tests and research to confirm its view.
“The point is — as an institution which doesn’t need the money — why take the risk for what was an estimated $20,000-$30,000? You might as well keep it and do some further analysis and satisfy yourself it definitely is a copy before you sell it.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art said in response: “The attribution of the picture has been debated in the past and we believe it will continue to be debated. Given the strength of our holdings in this area, we stand by the decision to deaccession the work.”
Henry Pettifer, head of Old Master Paintings at Christie’s London, said Rubens’ paintings of his family were carried off in a freer and more spontaneous style than his formal commissioned portraits. The portrait of Clara Serena “has a distinct character and a sense of tenderness,” he said. “You feel like the artist was painting in private”.
Rubens was the leading artist of the Northern Baroque. The Flemish painter’s works were coveted by aristocrats and wealthy clients. A scholar and businessman, he became trusted by royalty, even acting as an informal diplomat between nations such as England and Spain.
He painted epic, gallery-scale pieces with religious or classical themes as well as portrait commissions. One of the former, “Lot and his Daughters”, sold for £44.8m at Christie’s in July 2016, setting the auctioneer’s record for an Old Master work, which was only surpassed by Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which went for $450m last year.
Mr Pettifer said he expected the painting to generate broad international demand, citing the sale of “Lot and His Daughters”. “Although it was a very different painting it elicited bidding from all over the world. I think Rubens is an artist who has the ability to do that.”
Deaccessioning — when museums or galleries sell existing works to reinvigorate their permanent collections — is relatively common in the US but remains controversial in the UK. The Northampton Museum and Gallery faced a tirade of criticism in 2014 when it sold an ancient Egyptian statue from its permanent collection in order to pay for a new extension. “Sekemkha” sold for £15.76m at Christie’s, breaking the auction record for an ancient Egyptian artwork.
This file has been amended to show that Clara Serena was only daughter with his wife Isabella Brant.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.