History was made at Sotheby’s July 10 Old Master Paintings sale when Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ long-lost masterpiece, The Massacre of the Innocents, sold in the room to the Mayfair-based book dealer Sam Fogg for £45m, the highest auction price ever achieved for a work of art in the UK.
This superbly preserved panel painting had recently been
discovered by Sotheby's expert George Gordon languishing in an
Austrian monastery with an attribution to the little-known Jan van
den Hoecke. After lengthy research, Sotheby's re-attributed the
painting to Rubens, dating it to the early period of c.1609-11,
just after the artist's return from Rome, when he also painted the
celebrated (and controversial) Samson and Delilah now in the
National Gallery. The pre-sale estimate was £4m-8m.
A packed saleroom watched enthralled as Sotheby's chairman Henry
Wyndham took bids from at least eight different sources before a
last telephone bidder finally gave way to Fogg, bidding on behalf
of an anonymous private buyer, at £45m.
After the sale there was no shortage of speculation about the
identity of Fogg's client. Most knowledgeable trade sources plumped
for the Canadian oil and media magnate Lord Thomson (estimated
wealth £10.6bn, making him the 14th richest man in the world) as
the favourite with the Emir of Qatar rumoured as a possible outside
bet. In 1996 Fogg paid £3.8m on behalf of Lord Thomson for the late
12th century Becket reliquary chasse at Sotheby's July 1996 British
Rail Pension Fund sale.
Rubens' The Massacre of the Innocents now ranks as the third most
expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Depending on the
exchange rate taken, the Rubens could also be regarded as the most
expensive painting ever sold in sterling, but the US dollar is now
almost universally regarded as the primary currency of the
international art market.
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