In August of last year, Bonhams’ Oxford office received a consignment of paintings by 19th century Buckingham Palace artist Matthew Shepperson. The seller is a descendant of Shepperson’s who had recently inherited the art and was hoping to sell the pieces for a few hundred dollars each. One of the paintings, a bust-length portrait of a gentleman wearing a black tunic and a white golilla collar (ie, a ruff), caught the experts’ eyes as significantly superior in quality to the rest of the consignment.
When Andrew McKenzie, director of Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings department in London examined it, he told Oxford to withdraw it from sale pending further investigation. “There’s a very specific modelling to the cheek,” McKenzie explains, “and it has a very cool pigment to it. As soon as I saw that, it was obvious to me that it was by the same hand as others I had seen.”
The Old Master department brought in consultant Brian Koetser to help research the portrait. They contacted Dr. Peter Cherry, Professor of Art History at Trinity College in Dublin and a leading expert on Velázquez. He immediately thought it was a previously unknown work by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez.
Bonhams next consulted Carmen Garrido, Head of Technical Services at the Prado Museum in Madrid, also a leading Velázquez expert and author of the definitive work on his painting technique, Velázquez: Technica y Evolución. She too identified it as a work by the master himself. Technical analysis of the paint and X-rays supported the attribution. When Dr. Cherry saw the X-rays, he confirmed his earlier tentative assessment. Velázquez’s portraits have a characteristic ghostly look in X-rays because of his painting technique.
Researchers think Velázquez painted it between 1632 and 1635, after his first trip to Italy. The sitter is unknown, but experts think it could be Juan Mateos, master of the hunt for Philip IV of Spain. It remains a mystery how Matthew Shepperson, a jobbing artist who made minor ducats copying famous paintings at Buckingham Palace, got his hands on a Velázquez. He made a hobby of collecting portraits, and the painting is in excellent condition so he probably had no idea it was even as old as it is. An invoice of seven shillings was found in his papers that could refer to his purchase of the unknown Velázquez portrait.
And so the painting Shepperson bought for shillings and that his descendant expected to sell for between $320 and $480 will now go on the block at Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings auction on December 7th as Portrait of a Gentleman by Diego Velázquez with an estimated sale price of $3.2 million to $4.8 million, 10,000 times the original estimate. There are only 98 other known Velázquez paintings in the world, four of them in private hands. They don’t come up for sale at public auction very often, needless to say, so no doubt that estimate will be blown away.