SPEAKING to ATG at the end of last week, London Old Master dealer Johnny Van Haeften still had not actually seen the monumental painting by Frans Francken II (1581-1642) for which he paid 6.1m euros (£5.65m) at Dorotheum’s Old Master sale in Vienna on April 21.
He, like everyone else, had been unable to travel.
Although booked on a flight out from London to Vienna on Monday, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland put paid to his plans to view Man Having to Choose between the Virtues and Vices in person. He was, instead, forced to bid on the piece relying purely on digital photographs and the advice of those who viewed who had made it to Austria and could view it on his behalf.
The 5ft x 6ft 11in (1.42 x 2.11m) oil on panel, signed and dated Do ffranck fecit. Ao 1635, was an extraordinary depiction of the human soul on its journey to Heaven or Hell, rendered in painstaking detail on an impressive scale.
It was painted on several joined panels and seemingly had survived in impeccable condition, having been in a private Berlin collection since 1949.
As Van Haeften pointed out, the value of such an unusual work, painted on a far larger scale than was typical for the artist, was near impossible to judge before it came to auction, but Dorotheum were able to pitch it conservatively at 400,000-600,000 euros.
The price paid after a bidding battle that included other members of the international trade and private collectors was a record for both the artist and for any painting sold at auction in Austria. The previous national record was 3.56m euros for Egon Schiele's Mädchen at Weiner Kunst Auktionen in 1998.
Van Haeften has bought the painting for stock, but the day after the sale was announced, his London gallery was already inundated with enquiries from museums and collectors worldwide.
"I've always been rather a fan of Frans Francken II, as he is such an extraordinarily innovative painter. And this unique painting ticked all the boxes for both collectors and museums," said Van Haeften after the sale.
"In my opinion, this is not only the best picture to have been painted by Francken, but I think it is also the best painting to have come out of the explosion of genius in Antwerp in the early 17th century."
Although the future of the painting is as yet unsure, there are plans to unveil it at Van Haeften's St James's gallery in London during Master Paintings Week, from July 3-9.
And what fate would await Van Haeften in the Last Judgment? In his words, "I have to say, Vice looks a lot more fun…"
By Anna Brady