Sotheby’s unveiled a more than 400-year-old portrait by Peter Paul Rubens in Brussels on Tuesday (21 February) which is expected to sell for as much as $30m when it goes to auction in New York this spring.
The display of Portrait of a Man as the God Mars (around 1620) in Brussels marks the work’s first return to Belgium, where it was painted, in two centuries, a Sotheby’s spokesperson said. Rubens completed the painting in Antwerp around 1620 at the height of his creative powers, according to the auction house, which estimates the painting will bring between $20m to $30m at auction during Sotheby’s marquee evening sale of Modern art in May.
Portrait of a Man as the God Mars was once the most expensive Rubens work ever sold at auction after it fetched $8.2m at Sotheby’s New York in 2000. The painting has not been seen on the market since 2002, though it was on public display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for several years.
The painting is from the Fisch Davidson Collection, a group of works embroiled in the complicated divorce proceedings between Mark Fisch, a trustee at the Met, and his estranged wife, former judge Rachel Davidson. Last month, ten Baroque paintings from the same collection brought in a combined $49.5m with fees at Sotheby’s, including Rubens’s The Head of Saint John the Baptist presented to Salome, which fetched $23.5m ($26.9m with fees). It was the most expensive artwork in the sale, and achieved Rubens’s third-highest auction result.
Before landing in the Fisch Davidson collection in 2002, Portrait of a Man as the God Mars had a number of high-profile owners, including members of the English branch of the Rothschild family, before it was purchased in 1929 by retail giant Samuel H. Kress, who was a major founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The painting remained in the Kress family until the late 1980s, when it passed through the hands of other American collectors, according to Sotheby’s.
While the identity of the sitter in the portrait is unknown, a Sotheby’s spokesperson says the helmet he wears in the painting actually belonged to Rubens, who was fascinated with classical antiquity and collected artefacts related to that period. Rubens believed that the dolphin-head shaped helmet—which appears in several of his other works—dated back to classical antiquity, although later researchers discovered it was most likely created in 16th-century Italy, according to Sotheby’s.
The most expensive Rubens painting ever sold at auction was The Massacre of the Innocents, (1609-11), which fetched £49.5m at Sotheby's London in 2002.