“When we told him what it was worth, the air in the room turned electric,” auctioneer Knut Knutson of Uppsala Auction House (Uppsala Auktionskammare) told The Local.
The owner, “an ordinary Swede”, had been oblivious to what he had hanging on his wall for almost a decade.
The painting, which had been left to him by his wife when she passed away, turned out to be a work of Russian master Ivan Aivazovsky dating back to 1858. Its name was “The Battle of Bomarsund”.
The improbable story began when the elderly man who was moving house decided he had some stuff to get rid of.
He got in contact with a small Stockholm auction house and sent a few boxes over to them, including a large canvas his wife had left him when she passed away in 2002, which would be too large for the walls of his new home.
On a note he had written: “Will you accept these things? Sell what you can and leave the rest to the Red Cross!”
The painting was put out for auction on the net with a starting price of 8,000-10,000 kronor.
However, when the activity around the painting exceeded expectations, the head of the auction house decided it might be best to seek expert advice.
They then turned to Uppsala Auction House, known for selling a lot of Russian objects in recent years.
“When we got the email we almost exploded with excitement. We realised, of course, that if this was a genuine Aivazovsky it would be a painting worth millions”, Knutson said.
Knutson and his team contacted their own specialists, who in their turn contacted the world’s foremost specialist on Aivazovsky.
The outcome was that the painting was authenticated as a genuine work of the Russian master.
Meanwhile, the owner knew that the painting had been transferred to Uppsala but was unaware of the developments regarding its origins.
Knutson decided that this wasn’t something to be told over the phone and instead headed out to see the owner in person.
Knutson informed the owner that the painting was by one of Russia’s great national artists, and that the starting price therefore would be a bit higher than it had originally been set by the Stockholm auction house.
Knutson started saying: “We are thinking of a starting price of five or six…” when the owner interrupted him saying “surely, you don’t mean five or six hundred thousand do you?”
When Knutson then answered: “No, actually I mean five or six million…”, the atmosphere in the room turned “electric”, according to Knutson.
“It was one of those moments when you wish you had a camera and could film what happened. He stood up, and then sat back down again saying ‘You are jesting, you can’t really mean that’,” Knutson said.
The painting was subsequently catalogued and marketed, mainly in Russia. On Tuesday it sold at Uppsala Auction House for a staggering 7.6 million kronor to a Russian collector.
While Knutson has worked in the business for many years and traveled the country up and down as part of the Swedish version of the Antiques Roadshow television show, Tuesday’s sale was one of the most exciting points in his career.
“I have been working in this business since 1980 and I have seen a lot, but this amazingly unlikely story easily takes the cake,” he said.
According to Knutson, the owner, who started out as a lumberjack and got an education through correspondence courses, still finds it hard to believe what has happened.
“He is very happy and completely overwhelmed, but he won’t quite believe it until he can see the money in his account,” Knutson told The Local.