Rare Rubens reignites interest in old master art

In an art market currently dominated by contemporary works, an old master oil sketch can still cause a stir.

By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- While contemporary works like Damien Hirst's $100 million diamond skull have dominated the headlines, a rare old master study by Peter Paul Rubens is quietly generating buzz among art collectors.

Rubens' "Two Studies of a Young Man," slated to arrive in the U.S. for the first time ever this weekend, is being made available to the public for the first time in over 70 years.

Two Studies of a Young Man
Peter Paul Rubens' "Two Studies of a Young Man" is valued at $8 million to $12 million, according to Christie's.

The oil sketch will be displayed at Christie's New York from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 before it goes on sale at an auction in London on Dec. 6.

It is expected to sell for $8 million to $12 million, according to the auction house.

"Every time a major old master comes to auction it's substantial," according to Joao Ribas, curator at The Drawing Center in New York. "It often gives people a chance to see something that's been in a private collection for years."

The panel, which Rubens painted between 1615 and 1617, is a study he used to compose a figure in Rubens' "The Adoration of the Magi,'' which hangs in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, France.

"It seems to fit into a group of works by Rubens of head studies, which he made and then kept in his studio in order to use as a repertoire of types," according to Jeffrey Muller, a professor of Art History at Brown University.

Most likely, the work was never meant to be viewed publicly or sold. "Rubens, in particular, was extremely guarded about his drawings," said Ribas. To see it now, he explained, is like getting a rare glimpse at the painter's private vision.

Even though a significant portion of Rubens' body of work wasn't meant for the marketplace, sales have garnered substantial sums. In fact, Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents sold for $76 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2002, and still holds the record for an old master painting. (It had been estimated to sell for between $8 million and $10 million by the auction house.)

Meanwhile, post-war contemporary pieces by artists like Hirst, Jeff Koons and Willem de Kooning, are repeatedly commanding prices so high that many investors -- and museums -- are simply priced out of the market.

Prior to the sale of Hirst's skull, a painting by Mark Rothko set records for both the artist and a contemporary work at auction when it sold for close to $73 million, far in excess of the $40 million estimate.

And that has renewed interest in traditional old master paintings, where the prices, while still high, have held steady over the last few decades.

"Historically, this is a much less volatile market," said Nicholas Hall, international director of the old master paintings department at Christie's. Even contemporary art collectors are turning their attention to works from this earlier period, because prices in the post-war contemporary market have gotten so exorbitant, he explained.

A history of "Two Studies of a Young Man"

The oil sketch first surfaced when it was bought as part of a group of paintings at a local auction house in England in the early 1930s. The panel was then recognized as a Rubens and sold at Christie's in 1934 for a little over $3,000.

It was acquired soon afterwards by Anton Philips, founder of Royal Philips Electronics, and displayed among his private collection at his house in Amsterdam.

During World War II, Philips stashed his collection with the Dutch Trade Agency in The Hague, and the sketch has only been shown once since then, in an exhibition in Holland in the 1950s.

This December, the painting will be offered along with 19 other pieces from the Anton Philips collection, including two Dutch landscapes by Aelbert Cuyp and Salomon van Ruysdael. Proceeds of the sale his estate will go to his heirs, according to Christie's. Top of page