It appeared at auction house La Suite Subastas on March 3 where it was described simply as ‘Flemish School 15th-16th century, in the Italian renaissance taste’.
Measuring 21 x 14in (53 x 36cm), the painting was catalogued as an ‘oil, probably on paper, and applied on panel’ with the listing also stating that it came from a ‘distinguished private family’.
As it had been imported for sale, an export licence from Spain was ‘guaranteed’ according to the saleroom.
Trade sources pointed out that what appears to be the same picture is listed as a work by Bouts in the Friedländer database of Flemish paintings run by the Institut royal du patrimoine artistique, a Belgian heritage body.
The listing gives a provenance to the Spiridon collection in Rome (Georges Spiridon’s purchases included works from the important collection of Cardinal Joseph Fesch) and subsequently an auction in Amsterdam in 1928.
However, the listing also includes a brief remark near the bottom: ‘Copy (from the 19th century?)’.
A European dealership that took a close interest in the portrait told ATG that it believed it to be a “period painting”. They also said that it was painted on panel, then transferred onto canvas (rather than as catalogued).
This once widespread restoration practice involved reducing a decaying wooden panel to a veneer before adhering it to fabric.
Citizens of Louvain
An original Bouts would almost certainly be a £1m-plus proposition. Most surviving pictures are in museums.
Among the portraits he made of the prominent citizens of Louvain from the 1460-70s are pictures in London’s National Gallery and the New York Met Museum – both works showing male sitters wearing red hats similar to that seen in the Barcelona painting.
Estimated at €8000- 12,000, the portrait in Barcelona piqued the interest of a number of dealers. While not everyone was prepared to bid the kind of six-figure sum that, in the end, was required to win the lot, the tantalising Bouts connection meant at least a few parties were prepared to compete strongly and it was eventually knocked down at €288,000 (£238,805) plus 22% buyer’s premium.
Further research may well shed light on this intriguing portrait. “The new owner and art historians must now do their research; this is the very exciting part of the job,” said the European dealership.