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Collectors' focus.

Attribution wars rage around Rubens, fuelled by his prolific output and close association with Van Dyck. This has resulted in some unpredictability in the market for both the master and his circle, which discerning collectors may use to their advantage.

In 2002, a magnificently composed painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) achieved 49.5m [pounds sterling] at Sotheby's London. It remains the most expensive Old Master painting sold at auction. The Massacre of the Innocents (1609-11), acquired by the late Canadian magnate Ken Thomson, had been deemed a work by a follower of Rubens, Jan van den Hoecke (1611-51). It was George Gordon, an Old Master paintings specialist at Sotheby's, who identified it as the early work mentioned in letters between the Forchoudt brothers, Antwerp's leading dealers at the end of the 17th century. Sold to Fiirst Johann Andreas von Liechtenstein, the painting somehow slipped between inventories while in the prince's custodianship and was reattributed to Van den Hoecke. The story is illustrative of the huge sums at stake--a Van den Hoecke might make at most 50,000 [pounds sterling].

'Few really good Rubens come on the market,' says Gordon, who is now co-chairman of Old Master paintings and drawings at Sotheby's worldwide. 'When they do,' he adds, 'they reach a really good price.' Prior to the Thomson acquisition, the last significant sale of a Rubens painting was in 1980, when London's National Gallery bought Samson and Delilah (1609-10) at Christie's London for 2.5m [pounds sterling]. Last December, the half-length Portrait of a Gentleman, dated to Rubens' second visit to Spain in 1628-29, was bought by a US bidder for 3.2m [pounds sterling] (estimate 400,000 [pounds sterling]-600,000 [pounds sterling]; Fig. 2) at Sotheby's London after a bidding war. Formerly attributed to the circle of Rubens, it had previously achieved just 17,000 [euro] at Christie's Paris in 2003. Neither is Rubens' appeal restricted to the markets of Europe and North America; the underbidder for The Annunciation, an oil sketch in the same sale that fetched 3.2m [pounds sterling] (estimate 2m [pounds sterling]-3m [pounds sterling]; Fig. 1), was a Chinese collector. 'Collectors across the board are drawn to Rubens' oil sketches,' Gordon remarks. 'They are so vivacious--he is a painter whose personality you can feel expressed through his paintwork.' Last July, a work argued to be the preparatory drawing for the National Gallery's Samson and Delilah fetched 3.2m [pounds sterling] (estimate 1.5m [pounds sterling]- 2.5m [pounds sterling]) at Christie's London, part of the I.Q. van Regteren Altena collection. Henry Pettifer, head of Old Master paintings at Christie's London, comments: 'The market for high-quality works by Rubens has strengthened over the last decade, with an increasingly broad spectrum of potential buyers in the market. Oil sketches are particularly popular, as are drawings.'

In some ways Rubens is a gift to the market. He is one of a handful of artists universally acknowledged as a great master, renowned for the purposeful energy and emotional power of his paintings. And he was prolific, producing both large-scale religious, mythological and historical paintings, and also landscapes, hunting scenes, portraits, oil sketches, studies and drawings. But Rubens was also the pioneer, from the 1620s, of a highly effective studio system, training many of the most gifted young Flemish artists of his generation, including Van Dyck and Jordaens. His pupils worked on major commissions, copied his sketches and paintings, and ensured the continuation of his style and techniques--as the Royal Academy's upcoming show, 'Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne' (24 January-10 April 2015), will reinforce. Because Rubens did not sign his works, the question of how much of a painting is by Rubens and how much by a pupil--and the standing of the latter today--is both fundamental to the work's value and ongoing scholarship, and hard to establish definitively. It is largely a question of connoisseurship.

Over the last century certain key scholars Ludwig Burchard, David Jaffe, Julian Held maintained a consensus. And since 1963 the Rubenianum in Antwerp, which holds Burchard's archive, has been charged with co-ordinating scholarship and settling attribution. But more recently, consensus has been harder to achieve. The 2005 National Gallery exhibition 'Rubens--A Master in the Making' triggered a long-running dispute with a small group of researchers into the authenticity of the museum's Samson and Delilah. This controversy has caused some to challenge the attribution of the preparatory drawing sold at Christie's London in July. Meanwhile debates have arisen surrounding works from the late 1610s, when Van Dyck was active in Rubens' studio, concerning works formerly given to Rubens now being reattributed, by the Rubenianum, to Van Dyck. A case in point is Portrait of a Carmelite Monk, given to Van Dyck at Sotheby's London in 2011 (713,250 [pounds sterling] on an estimate of 600,000 [pounds sterling]- 800,000 [pounds sterling]), but which London dealer Fergus Hall contends is by Rubens, 'to whom it has in the past always been attributed'. Another is a portrait of the young Van Dyck now in the Rubenshuis, which some now suggest may be a self-portrait. Hall says: 'While they did work extremely closely during this period, it seems to me that there are distinct and objectively observable differences in the techniques of the two masters.'

Sometimes the judgement goes the other way, as with the vivid Rubens study ('tronie') of an old man, an oil on panel discovered by the Weiss Gallery, which had previously been given to Van Dyck. Because Rubens did so few heads, especially after 1620, but valued them highly as templates for his larger compositions, and because his oil sketches are known to be entirely autograph, they are particularly sought after. Recent times have also seen controversy over the attribution of oil sketches.

An oil sketch of a young girl, 'possibly Clara Serena Rubens (1611-23), the Artist's Daughter', deaccessioned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, had been demoted by Julian Held from Rubens to 'Follower of, hence Sotheby's New York's modest estimate of $20,000-$30,000. The trade, however, thought otherwise and bid up to $626,500. London dealer Philip Mould comments:

'If the committee had given its endorsement it would have made twice or three times as much.'

Even the drawings are not safe from controversy. Sotheby's international head of Old Master drawings Greg Rubinstein comments: 'There is a lot of discussion about attribution, where the line falls between Rubens, pupils and assistants--and Rubens was known to retouch the compositions of others.'

A nice autograph drawing will fetch 200,000 [pounds sterling], more for an outstanding example. While generally Old Master drawings collectors and paintings collectors are different, Rubinstein observes that both are interested 'in following Rubens' thought processes across drawings, oil sketches, modelli and paintings.'

On a final note, dealer David Koetser comments: 'The market today requires great certainty in attribution and insecure works are not ones we would look to purchase at any price. We always refer back to the Rubenianum in Antwerp where the leading scholars for Rubens reside, and with whom I like to share our information, just to get their confirmation.'
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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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