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This summer, an art auction house in Maryland received an Unknown Painting. This painting, dubbed “Portrait of an Old Woman,” was labeled for auction as Lot 184. Weschler’s auction house was unsure of exactly who the artist might have been, but two things about the painting are known for certain:

  • The old woman in the portrait was painted in Flanders around 400 years ago.
  • The painting was more than likely from the “studio” of Sir Peter Paul Rubens.

Danielle Isaacs is the fine art specialist at Weschler’s, and she felt she was perhaps too bold in claiming the latter. The problems stemmed from the fact that there was some doubt, because of the nature of Rubens’ work and studio.

Isaacs said, “One of the issues with Rubens is that (a) his work is faked a lot, and (b) he had an enormous studio with a lot of apprentices.”

She hit the books to try to track down the history of this Unknown Painting.

Appraised The Value of The PieceAppraised The Value of The Piece

The National Gallery of Art maintains a library, and within the horde of records, Danielle found the first recorded mention of this Unknown Painting (1797, Paris). The painting had most recently been sold in 1923. She subsequently appraised the value of the piece at between $10,000 and $15,000. The 20-inch by 16-inch canvas sold for $27,000.

Now, that seems like a lot of money; but, wrap your brain around this…

The same painting was sold a short while later, in June of this year, at Sotheby’s auction house in London for 416,750 English pounds.

That is roughly equivalent to $550,000.

Basically, what happened was the researchers at Sotheby’s determined that the painting was, in fact, put to canvas by Rubens, the man himself!

Rubens had a bit of a trademark. If he saw a face he liked, he would paint it as soon as he could. That image then became a reference for later paintings. The old woman’s face in this mystery painting also appears in a known Rubens work that hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in another, separate painting in a museum in Lichtenstein.

George Gordon, co-chairman of Old Master paintings and drawings at Sotheby’s said, “Finding connections between oil sketches and finished paintings doesn’t necessarily mean the work is by the master.” But it does add to the stockpile of evidence to that end.

Its All In The FrameworkIts All In The Framework

Another aspect was the structure upon which the painting was built. Rubens used a specific framework in his work that was different from other masters of his day, and it was this wooden substructure that led the Rubenianum in Antwerp, Belgium to call for the piece. Their experts studied it extensively, and concluded it is, indeed, a hitherto unknown Rubens original.

The moral of the story seems to be that a seemingly unfinished painting by Rubens, one of the great European masters of art, is somehow worth more to the world of fine art than a “finished” work by an anonymous artist.

Another lesson could be that we may never understand “fine art” and the people who buy it and study it, unless you are rolling in dough…

That could just be my inner hick talking, but maybe not.

What do you think? Is a 400-year-old sketch painting worth more than half-a-million dollars, just for the name of the guy who painted it?

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