Portrait of a Lady by Peter Paul Rubens was sold for PLN 14,4 million (EUR 3,1 million/USD $3.4 million including auction fee) at Thursday’s auction of Old Masters, 19th-Century and Modern Art at DESA Unicum, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold on the Polish market. The result well exceeded the Warsaw auction house’s previous record for Two Married Women by Andrzej Wróblewski, which achieved a price of PLN 13.44 million at an auction on 30 November 2021.
It was the most anticipated auction in the history of the Polish art market. For the first time ever a work by Rubens, one of the best-known artists in the world, appeared on the Polish market. The painting has a superb provenance and depicts a young woman with dark eyes and hair, in a black velvet dress. For over 300 years the work was believed to be a portrait of Isabella Brant, the first wife of Rubens, but it is now believed that it may depict one of her sisters. According to another hypothesis the model was a member of the Duarte family, influential Jewish jewellers in 17th-century Antwerp. This may be supported by the characteristic gems that are part of the woman’s outfit.
A recently completed conservation exercise, technical examination and stylistic attribution research by the Courtauld Institute and others confirmed the work of Rubens, with the involvement of his workshop. The research also determined that this portrait shows higher quality of execution than the two other existing versions of the work at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Wallace Collection in London.
The portrait by Rubens sold by DESA Unicum has a fully documented history, from the moment it left the artist’s studio in Antwerp in around 1626 until the present day. One of the first owners of the canvas was Sir Peter Lely, a friend of Rubens and art collector. Then for two centuries the painting was found at Stowe House, in the collection of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos. Sold at Christie’s in London in 1848, in the mid-20th century Portrait of a Lady was part of the Paris collection of the family of the Egyptian Prince Mohammed Ali Ibrahim and Princess Hanzade, where it remained until 2011. The last time it was viewed on exhibition was in Brussels in 1965.
Portraits painted by Rubens rarely appear at auction. In July 2020 Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Chain was sold at Christie’s for nearly GBP 4 million, and three years earlier Sotheby’s showed Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress and Cloak, Before a Red Drape, which ultimately sold for GBP 3 million. Since 2002, the most expensive work by the Flemish artist has remained the monumental canvas The Massacre of the Innocents, sold at Sotheby’s for GBP 49.5 million, eight times the upper estimate, followed by the painting Lot and His Daughters, for which a buyer paid GBP 44.88 million in 2016.
Juliusz Windorbski, CEO of DESA S.A., commented: “We worked for a long time to ensure that this painting would appear at our auction. The sale of a work of this rank and value at an auction in Poland is an event of undoubted importance, testifying to the rising standing of our art market, which is catching up with more mature western markets. We are confident that the Polish art market has huge potential, and investing in masterpieces of painting or sculpture will continue to grow in importance, despite the currently difficult geopolitical situation.”