An unsigned painting of an unknown man could fetch R8 million by way of a silent auction of sorts – after an extraordinary journey put it on display for potential buyers.
"Portrait of a Gentleman", most likely by Old Master Sir Peter Paul Rubens, is currently on public display at the Killarney Country Club in Johannesburg before next week moving to Cape Town.
Anyone, says auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co, is welcome to look, though it will take deep pockets to buy it. The auction house has estimated the value of the piece at between R5 million and R8 million, but that is an admittedly rough estimate.
It is, after all, not ever day that you sell a Rubens in South Africa, says the firm's fine art expert Luke Crossley.
It is also not every day that you get invited over for coffee and find a painting estimated to be 420 years old, by a painter who is still a household name, hanging unregarded on the wall.
In September 2017 a family interested in the potential prices of a couple of works asked Crossley around. Over coffee they explained that they had some letter, somewhere, that seemed to indicate the painting they knew as "the funny old man" could have been by Rubens.
Crossley's heart sank. The worst part of the job, he says, is to tell people their supposed treasure is fake, sold to them by one of the many people who deal in fake Old Masters.
Then the family told him they had owned it since the 1930s – and he realised that, for once, the treasure may be real.
As best Crossley – with help from various national archives and even hunters of art looted by the Nazis – can trace it, the painting first came on auction in Belgium in 1740. From there it can be followed every step of the way until it was bought by a Jewish paediatrician in 1925.
Seven years later, apparently on the advice of patients well informed on the rise of National Socialism, that doctor relocated to South Africa. He sold at least one other important work of art to set himself up in his new home, but hung on to the portrait of the man in the ruff.
Experts have been positively identifying the portrait as Rubens' work since at least 1925 – but before that there was some debate on whether it could have been by the lesser known Frans Pourbus the Younger. That, like the fact that the subject is completely unknown, only adds to the mystery of the work, its current auction house believes.
Unlike contemporary South African artists whose work command multi-million rand price tags, there is no real sense of the value of a painting by an Old Master locally, says Crossley.
It will probably not fetch the up to R90 million price expected from Reubens' portrait of his daughter coming up for auction in early July. But at least it was not accidentally sold as a nondescript piece of little value either, as that portrait was in 2013.
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