Rubens portrait rediscovered in South Africa

A portrait by Peter Paul Rubens that was smuggled out of Germany to South Africa in the early 1930s and hung, unpublished and unrecognized, on the wall of the family home for decades, has been rediscovered and put up for auction. Portrait of a Gentleman depicts an elegant bearded man in a large white ruff and a finely woven black coat.

The identity of the sitter is lost and while Rubens is believed to have painted it between 1598 and 1609, the first time it appears on the historical record is when it was sold in Doornik (aka Tournai, modern-day Belgium) in 1740. Even though it is unsigned, it was recognized as a work by Rubens at that time, but in later sales the attribution bounced back and forth between Rubens and Frans Porbus the Younger. When it was sold in Amsterdam to a German-Jewish doctor in 1925, it was as a Rubens. The doctor had renown Dutch art historian Henk Peter Bremmer examine the painting and he confirmed that the oil on oak panel painting was in fact painted by Peter Paul Rubens. In 1927 two other well-known art historians agreed with Bremmer’s assessment.

Shortly thereafter, the doctor became increasingly concerned about the political situation in Germany. He discussed the rise of Nazism with his patients and during one of those conversations, he came to the grim realization that he had to leave Germany as quickly as possible to save his and his family’s future. A patient offered to keep his belongings safe, including his large and valuable art collection, to make it easier for him to get out of Dodge. That patient was as good as his word and returned everything to the doc once he’d gotten out of the country before he left for South Africa.

The doctor settled in Johannesburg around 1932 and established a successful practice. He also became an well-respected teacher. His Rubens hung on the wall the whole time. His family referred to the portrait as “the funny old man.”

In 2017, they approached fine art expert Luke Crossley with auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co to appraise a couple of works from the doctor’s collection. They told him they had come across a letter that claimed the portrait was the work of Rubens. Crossley had little hope that this was accurate as Old Master fakes are rampant and many families who think they’ve found a masterpiece by a famous artist in their own homes discover to their dismay that they have a nothing by nobody.

His rational pessimism turned to glee when he researched the portrait. Crossley was able to discover its long ownership history going back to the 18th century and the many expert attributions over the years. Rubens paintings are not exactly rife in South Africa, so this was a major find, a career high as well as a boon for the doctor’s heirs.

Stephan Welz & Co have put portrait on display at the Killarney Country Club in Johannesburg. Next week it will move to Cape Town. It is on silent auction until June 29th. The pre-sale estimate is $370,000-$592,000. If you’d like to make your own play for the funny old gentleman, fill in this form and email or fax it to the bidding department.