Portrait of a Gentleman
Image: Paul Rubens

It’s not every day a painting by an Old Master pops up in the middle of Joburg. We tend to refer to the likes of Pierneef and Irma Stern as old masters but they’re actually modern 20th century artists. Their works might go for millions but they aren’t even 100 years old. The oil painting Portrait of a Gentleman, on auction at Stephan Welz & Co, is well over 400 years old and the artist, Peter Paul Rubens, is an Old Master with capital letters.

The painting – a subtly expressive portrait of a bearded man with twinkling eyes and a white ruff – was on view last week in Joburg, and will be shown in Cape Town this week (details below), but hasn’t been seen in public since it was bought on auction in Amsterdam by the current owners’ grandfather in 1925.

The auction house, however, has known about it since last year but has kept it under wraps while doing the artistic sleuthing necessary to trace its provenance and to make sure they have all their bases covered before presenting it on auction.  

“With a work of this level, you have to be very, very sure of what you’re saying,” says Luke Crossley, fine art specialist at art auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co. “If you’re going to say that it’s a Rubens, you’ve got to be able to back that up.” 

The adventure began with a phone call one afternoon from a potential client interested in consigning some art with the auction house. So far, so normal. But then there was a bit of a surprise. “They mentioned the name Rubens,” says Crossley. Of course, he was sceptical. “You don’t find them everywhere,” he says. But he went to have look, slightly dreading, as art specialists do, having to do the job that the suspense of shows like Antiques Roadshow hinges on - breaking the news that supposed family treasures are worth little more than their frames.  

When he arrived at the client’s house one evening last year, a glance at the dark, finely detailed 50cm painting on the lounge wall was enough to tell him it was something special. The work wasn’t signed but they often aren’t. “Just when you look at it, you can see by the technique that this is something important,” he says. “The subtleties, the linework, the understanding of light and shade – it’s all there.”

The owners had some documentation to back up their claim that Crossley was looking at the real deal. Their grandfather, a German Jewish doctor, it turned out, had bought it on auction in Amsterdam in 1925.

When you look at it, you can see by the technique that this is something important
Portrait of a Gentleman When you look at it, you can see by the technique that this is something important
Image: Paul Ruben

And so began the investigation into this extraordinary work’s past which was necessary before it could be revealed again to the public. Works by Old Masters go for millions; the pre-sale estimate on this one is between R5-million and R8-million.

Crossley explains auction houses have to do their homework before the sale of these pieces. If there are any grey areas in the picture’s past, you need to “get out ahead of it”, as he put it. “We’re putting our reputation out there,” he says. “You need to be clear and open and transparent about it. That’s why it’s taken so long to be sure.” And, he points out, “we’re talking centuries, as opposed to years”.

With many of the South African works he deals with, if there’s any doubt about their authenticity, he can usually call a living artist, show them the work in question, and ask them if it’s one of theirs. With Old Masters, it’s a more laborious process. While he says he’s seen attempts to forge local artists’ work, the racket when it comes to Old Masters is on another level.

In the past few years, Old Master forgeries have been turning up abroad with increasing regularity and some of the higher-profile cases have made international headlines. Last year, Sotheby’s sued a London art dealer after a painting he’d claimed was by the Dutch painter Frans Hals, and which they’d sold on his behalf, turned out to be fake. The same auction house also filed a claim in New York to recover funds from the sale of a work supposedly by 16th century Italian artist Parmigianino, which also turned out, on investigation, to be a forgery. A couple of years ago, expert art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was jailed after admitting to painting dozens of fakes so convincing that even top experts were fooled by them. He’d earned millions over a 35 year career. The stakes are high – last year, for example, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, sold at Christie’s for $450.3-million.

So, when Crossley knew he had the genuine article on his hands, it was the beginning, rather than the end, of his adventure. Working with provenance expert Gerard de Kamper, chief curator of the University of Pretoria Art Collection, the auctioneers set about tracing the painting’s past. De Kamper recently caused a stir when he announced the preliminary results of his investigation into the provenance and authorship of a small oil painting Portrait of a Rabbi from the JA van Tilburg Collection at UP, often (but never conclusively) attributed to Rembrandt. His methods included “a blend of provenance research and technical art analysis techniques, including UV light examination, X-radiography and X-ray fluorescence”.

The earliest record they found of Portrait of a Gentleman dated to 1740, when it was sold at an auction house in southwestern Belgium (at that point titled simply Portrait of a Man). “It would be put up for sale and it would go into a collection for roughly 70 years before it would start changing hands,” says Crossley.

It turned up again in London in the early 1800s and then in Germany towards the end of the century. In this period, the identity of the artist became the subject of a debate and there was some speculation it was actually by fellow Flemish Baroque era painter Frans Pourbus the Younger. “It’s important to acknowledge that there was a bit of a question,” says Crossley.

It was sold again in 1917 as a work by Rubens, this time to a rather important Berlin art collector named Oskar Skaller and again when the doctor bought it in 1925. (Crossley refers to him simply as “the doctor” to protect the sellers’ anonymity.)

After some digging about in the Dutch National Archives, De Kamper found, in the same year, eminent Dutch art historian Henk Peter Bremmer had attributed the work to Rubens in an article in the journal Beeldende Kunst. Nevertheless, in 1927, the doctor called in a couple of experts – art critics and historians Ludwig Burchard and Wilhelm von Bode – to confirm his painting was indeed a Rubens. They confirmed the attribution in a letter signed by both of them, which the owners have.

The painting found its way to Joburg when some of the doctor’s German patients warned him he should consider leaving the country as the spread of Nazism was more of a threat than the general public suspected. Fortunately, he took their advice seriously, and made plans to move, eventually settling in South Africa in 1932.

Crossley says they also had to crosscheck the work with organisations that trace Nazi war loot. Art Recovery International, based in London, were satisfied the work wasn’t involved in any war theft. There certainly was opportunity when the doctor entrusted his worldly goods to one of his patients while arranging his flight from Germany – but they were all safely returned. Incidentally, Skaller wasn’t so lucky. While he escaped Germany in 1939, the Gestapo seized his household belongings and auctioned them off. There are still works from his collection listed with the Monuments Men Foundation, an organisation that helps trace war loot and return it to its rightful owners.

“The doctor actually tried to place it on auction with Sotheby’s in the early 1950s,” notes Crossley but, although there is a catalogue listing, it went unsold.

With a good knowledge of its history, Crossley says, the art detective work can also help to “link it to a period in an artist’s career”. “Then you can start looking at the context in which it would have been created,” he says. “Was this a work that was commissioned? Was it something Rubens did on his own? Did it remain in the studio as an example of the master’s work, or was it a gift to the sitter?”

Burchard mentioned the painting again in a book about Rubens he wrote a few years later in which he said he believed it was painted between 1598, when Rubens was appointed to the Guild of Painters of Antwerp, and 1609, when he returned from a trip to Italy when his mother died.

An exciting point of speculation is that this might be a portrait of the artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “Rubens and Bruegel were great friends and collaborators,” says Crossley. “For instance, they did a series of works [depicting] the five senses… Those are in the Prado. So, it would have been romantic to say this is Bruegel the Elder as painted by Peter Paul Rubens. But I haven’t been able to find anything to justify that beyond doubt.”

There is a quite famous etching of Bruegel by another Flemish Old Master Anthony van Dyck that has some undeniable facial similarities to Rubens’ gentleman but Crossley is quick to point out that spotting likenesses “is quite interpretive”- it’s fun to speculate but, ultimately, doesn’t add much.

So, where to next for Joburg’s surprising Rubens? There was a steady stream of viewers at its Joburg showing at the Killarney Country Club and no doubt there will be when it’s shown in Cape Town, too. Crossley confirms there has been international interest. “There are a couple of people who are flying out specially to see the work,” he says.

Rather than a conventional auction, this one is being run over two weeks, and the auctioneers are taking private bids. “It’s more of a personal and direct way of working,” says Crossley. “We felt this painting justified a slight change in the approach.”

Chances are it’ll make its way back to Europe or the UK, although Crossley says there are local collectors who could afford it and might be interested. Wherever it ends up, he hopes it will go somewhere it’s taken care of.

“The work is painted on an old oak panel, and because of age, environment and being in private collection where [conditions] have not really been controlled, there’s been a slight movement of the panels, which has resulted in a slight shift in the paint, and there are a couple of chips,” he says. “So, we’re hoping that it goes into a really good collection, where it is protected and preserved, and it’s seen for what it is. It’s not just a regular painting.”

Go take a look – it might well be another 70 years before it pops up again.

PORTRAIT OF A GENTLEMAN can be viewed at the UCT Irma Stern Museum on June 28 and 29 2018, between 10am and 17pm. The auction house will also host an evening reception at the museum on Thursday June 28 at 6.30pm.

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