Record price for Rubens painting ‘a bargain’

The National Museum's expert on Rubens has changed her mind: the painting sold in Uppsala yesterday was almost certainly the work of the Flemish master. "I have found it in the literature now," she said.

The story of the Rubens painting in Uppsala is sure to become a classic in Swedish auction circles.

The auction house thought it was the work of one of Rubens’ followers and valued it at 15,000 kronor.

But jaws dropped and eyebrows were raised when yesterday’s bidding brought the price all the way up to 16.6 million kronor, making it the most expensive foreign painting ever sold in Sweden.

At the National Museum in Stockholm, expert Görel Cavalli-Björkman felt sure that it could not have been a real Rubens. But having immersed herself in the archives she soon reached a different conclusion.

A reproduction of the painting is to be found in one of the standard works on Rubens, and now the National Museum is wondering why the Uppsala auction house did not get in touch before the auction.

“I have found it in the literature now,” said Cavalli-Björkman, an expert in 17th century Flemish painting.

Since authentic Rubens seldom make it to the market, Cavalli-Björkman does not wish to speculate on the true value of the work. But she is sure of one thing.

“The buyer has got a bargain. It’s very exciting,” she said.

It was Swedish art expert Henry Avar, formerly of Christies, who first discovered that the painting in all probability was a genuine Rubens.

Avar took a close look at the auction house’s internet catalogue and began delving into books on the subject. He eventually found the painting, along with a note stating that it had been missing since the 1920s.

He then contacted the British buyer who ended up paying 16.6 million kronor.

But how much is the painting actually worth?

“Out of respect for the buyer, I can’t say,” said Avar, though he does concede that yesterday’s price was “very reasonable”.

However, a look at recent sales of works by the Flemish artist does provide some clues.

Henry Avar explains that a similar situation arose a couple of years ago, when a large painting thought to originate from a follower of Rubens was upgraded to master status.

The painting was eventually sold for 700 million kronor. The same thing happened with a smaller painting in Paris, which ended up selling for 130 million kronor.

the painting sold in Uppsala was however a sketch, which was painted in conjunction with the production of a larger work.

“This week Christies is selling an oil sketch, which is very small and not particularly good, and it has a starting price of 16-22 million kronor.

“The one from Uppsala is an awful lot better, which perhaps gives us some indication,” said Avar.