Art is an investment, sure, but sometimes it’s more about the story than the actual piece. Throw in a name like Sir Peter Paul Rubens and you have a rare moment in the South African secondary art scene.
This week a painting by the Flemish master is coming under the hammer and the reason it’s such a celebrated event is that work from European artists of this calibre seldom show up in private collections in South Africa – and the story behind this one is especially noteworthy.
The piece, Portrait of a Gentleman, features a man in a crisp, white ruff and black coat. His face stands out against the sombre greens of the background, while the interplay of light and shade – and the sitter’s unflinching gaze and gleaming eyes – draw the viewer in.
The piece, traced to Rubens, came to South Africa between 1931 and 1932 when a German-Jewish doctor fleeing the Nazi regime settled here.
According to fine art expert Luke Crossley at Stephan Welz and Co, the doctor was loved by his patients in Germany and before he fled the country, many of his patients took his possessions into safekeeping, including the Portrait of a Gentlemen.
Once he was safe in South Africa, the items were returned to the doctor. After being in the family for generations, Crossley, at the family’s invitation, was tasked with establishing where the work came from and its worth.
The portrait is expected to fetch between R5 million to R8 million when it goes under the hammer. This not just because of its exclusivity in the South African market, but also its uniqueness. “While we can’t say for sure who the sitter is, we can admire the artistry at work here.
But then also the question becomes what happened to the work once it was created: was it a gift to the sitter, was it a commission, was it retained in a studio as an example of the artists abilities? “It’s all a bit up in the air because of the lack of documentation from late 1500s to the late 1600s, but you can tell from the work that it was the work of a master,” says Crossley.
“Where we were able to track the work was the early 1700s, when it appeared on auction.” Back then, the portrait was purchased by a private collector and was in a collection for about 74 or 75 years. From there it appeared again in the early 1800s in Munich.
“There it was sold to an established German collector of art and antiquities. During this period there were certain questions. You’ll notice there’s no signatures on the work.”
During the time Ruben was being commissioned by royalty and wealthy Europeans to create Baroque portraits, artists’ signatures weren’t the norm because wealthy buyers would always know who the artist was as it was handed down from generation to generation.
“There’s enough distinctions in terms of the techniques and presentation of the sitter to follow it to Rubens,” Cossley adds, as well as paper trails as the piece was auctioned in Europe.
At modern-day auctions, Rubens’ work is highly valued. In London at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002, his painting, Massacre of the Innocents, sold for £49.5 million (R886 million).
In 2012 there was a dispute about his work, Portrait of a Commander, that sold for £9.1 million. Sotheby’s refused to auction it as the auction house was unsure of its authenticity.
A panel of academics finally deemed it to be a true Rubens and it was sold by Christie’s in New York. What a pity it didn’t also come with the story of a Jewish doctor forced from his home to South Africa, where he found freedom.