Auction  June 21, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Long-Lost Rubens Masterpiece Heads to Auction in July


Rubens, detail of Saint Sebastian Tended By Two Angels, circa 1650

Over four hundred years ago, Peter Paul Rubens painted a bloody, yet tender biblical scene of Saint Sebastian being tended to by two angels. But the painting’s ownership history and its frequent change of hands in the eighteenth century led to its eventual loss of all provenance and therefore loss of the artist of this work’s identity for three hundred years. Now, with new technology and extensive research, the painting is a confirmed work by Rubens and will go up for auction in early July at Sotheby’s London location with an estimate of 4,000,000 - 6,000,000 GBP ($5 million to $7.7 million). 


Rubens, Saint Sebastian Tended By Two Angels, circa 1650

The provenance history of the painting is quite complicated. It was first owned by Ambrogio Spinola, the first Marquis of Los Balbases in Genoa. The Spinola’s were a leading Genovese patron dynasty who were close with Rubens and most likely commissioned the painting. It was either executed in Italy or Antwerp anywhere between 1606 and 1610, given Rubens’ close connection with the family and his travels between Genoa in 1604 and his return to Antwerp in 1608. The painting stayed in the family: it was passed down to Ambrogio’s son, then a direct descendant, and so on, until 1733 when it is recorded to be owned by its last Spinola: Anna, Duchess of Archos, who settled in Madrid. Then, there is a gap from 1733 until the 20th century when it ends up in St. Louis, Missouri. It turned up in an auction in St. Louis, with attribution to French painter Laurent de la Hyre. So, what happened here? 

According to Sotheby’s, when Anna Spinola passed away and because she was widowed at the time of her death, the painting passed out of the Spinola family along with the rest of Anna’s collection. The work was most likely inherited by her female descendants until it became untraceable until its reappearance on the market in Missouri in 1963, with no explanation as to the gap or where the painting was in those two-hundred-some years.


X-ray of the lot

artnet news’ price database concludes that the work was last sold in 2008 at Ivey-Selkirk, a St. Louis auction house for a measly $40,000. It was misattributed as the work of Lauren de la Hyre. But this sale brought attention to the painting and its lack of provenance history. After scholars descended on the work, with its overwhelming similarities to works and drawings by Rubens, they identified it as a lost Rubens. 

Scholars originally thought that the painting was a copy of another painting with the same title by Rubens, Saint Sebastian Tended by Angels that hangs in the Galleria Corsini in Rome. But in 2021, the paintings were placed side by side and it became clear that the newly found work was the original and the Corsini version was the copy. X-rays have also confirmed the primacy of the newly resurfaced work.


Peter Paul Rubens, The Elevation of the Cross (1610-11), oil on canvas, Antwerp.

The work in question is a classical depiction of the Roman soldier’s woeful story who, after converting to Christianity, was tied to a tree and shot with arrows by the Dioclentians, and left there to die. In Rubens’ take on the story, he incorporates two muscular angels who untie the martyr and pull out the arrow that pierces his chest. The dramatic scene is filled with rich colors: a dark and foreboding swarm of blue clouds in the background, delicate swaths of silky fabrics that seem to fly around Sebastian, and the saint’s armor glistening as it sits on the side of the tree. 

Sothebys, British Museum



X-ray analysis of the work confirms Rubens’ process of painting: the figure of Saint Sebastian originally had his torso twisted to the left and his right arm bent over his head. His feet were positioned further left than in the finished version, and his right knee can be seen where the lower part of the tree is. Other small changes include an arrow in the saint’s right thigh and a change that can be seen in normal light in the right wing of the kneeling angel. 

Scholars were also fascinated by the armor that lies on the ground on the left of the composition because it recurs in a number of Rubens’ works such as in The Elevation of the Cross, where it is worn by an accompanying soldier. A sheet of drawings from Rubens’ Costume Book in the British Museum also further exemplifies the artist’s interest in the historicizing effects of armor. 

Given all these incredible details and new research and technology that led experts to this discovery, this sale is sure to be an important and exciting one.

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