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Rubens portrait masterpiece is found under 140 years of grime

 

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Valuable: A Sotheby’s technician with the rediscovered Rubens portrait. Photo: PA

Valuable: A Sotheby’s technician with the rediscovered Rubens portrait. Photo: PA

Valuable: A Sotheby’s technician with the rediscovered Rubens portrait. Photo: PA

A painting that sold for €86,000 three years ago is expected to fetch more than 40 times that amount after layers of dirt were removed to reveal it as a Rubens.

The true quality of 'Portrait of a Lady', by Peter Paul Rubens, the 17th-century Flemish artist, had been hidden beneath grime and varnish that had built up over a period of 140 years.

It will be offered for auction at Sotheby's in London on July 29, its first major evening sale since the easing of lockdown restrictions, with an estimate of €2.8m to €3.9m.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1902 as a work by Rubens, only for its origins to be later "forgotten about", said Andrew Fletcher, the head of department for Old Master paintings at Sotheby's.

Its former owner is believed to have been a descendant of London lawyer and writer Charles Butler, who bought the portrait at the great auction of Hugh Munro of Novar in 1878. After remaining in the Butler family collection for 139 years, it was sold for €86,000 in 2017 by Tennants Auctioneers, Leyburn in Yorkshire.

It was catalogued during the sale as being from the workshop of Rubens, meaning it was thought to have been painted by one of his assistants.

But the anonymous buyer had a hunch it was the real thing and undertook a lengthy cleaning process. The buyer then took it to Sotheby's, where experts confirmed it was a Rubens.

Mr Fletcher said "hidden details" were revealed by an infrared camera, including changes Rubens made while painting.

"There is one enormous change in the sky where the red curtain descended," he added. "Rubens obviously wasn't happy so pushed it back up and included more sky."

He described the portrait, which depicts a young woman in a black dress and cloak, as being "very majestic".

"I love the way she's looking slightly out of the corner of her eye with a little bit of a grin," he said.

"There's a real sense of character to her face, even though she's actually posed in quite a formal way."

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(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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