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A portrait of Flemish artist Cornelis de Vos and his family made by another painter in his circle, Anthony van Dyck, when he was just emerging at 20 years old from the studio of his teacher Peter Paul Rubens achieved $3.4 million, one of the artist’s top results, in Sotheby’s Old Masters evening sale in London last week. The sale came after the painting was held for four decades in a private collection on the island of Jersey. The work had been recovered by the famed World War II team of art sleuths known as the Monuments Men and returned to its original Jewish-Dutch owners in 1948. The sale came in at more than double the $1.4 million estimate. It now ranks as the sixth highest price paid for a van Dyck at auction, surpassing the $3.3 million paid for his royal portrait of the young Prince of Wales sold at Sotheby’s in February 2018. That work came to auction after more than a century in private hands.
The Flemish Baroque painter van Dyck had a prolific career as a British royal court painter in the 17th century. Known for his commanding depictions of high-status sitters, he has become one of the top sellers in the old masters category. The bulk of his most expensive auction sales include museum acquisitions, rediscoveries or paintings long unseen by scholars. When they surface at auction, they have fueled the momentum behind the artist’s market.
Sales to important museums have bolstered the value of van Dycks in recent years. The National Portrait Gallery in London bought in 2014 a self portrait made just before the artist’s death in 1641. The museum paid £10 million ($16 million). It was sold by London art dealer Phillip Mould, who had originally purchased it with American art collector Alfred Bader in December 2009 for a record-setting £8.3 million ($13.5 million), four times the low estimate at Sotheby’s in London. Mould and his partner were buying the work from the Earl of Jersey’s Trust after having been in the same family collection for nearly three centuries. Dubbed a national treasure when Mould was selling, the work was barred from export after recommendation from the UK government agency overseeing the preservation of cultural heritage.
A similar scenario played out in 2015, when a portrait of van Dyck’s friend Olivia Porter painted in 1637 was granted to the Bowes Museum in County Durham through a UK estate tax provision in lieu of £2.8 million inheritance tax. It had been owned by the Dukes of Northumberland since the 17th century.
The previous inflection point in Van Dyck’s market came in the late 1960s. Old master dealers Colnaghi sold a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria that was once owned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini. The price was a reported $100,000 paid by well-known American collector Charles Wrightsman. Wrightsman’s family eventually gave the painting in 2019 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a gift.
Portraits of royal sitters with formidable provenance continue to be van Dyck’s most valuable works. The artist’s second most-valuable price was set in 2018 when a wedding portrait of the nine-year old Princess Mary Henrietta Stuart, daughter of King Charles I which was commissioned for the court at The Hague, sold to Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts during a Christie’s Old Masters Evening sale in London for $7.5 million. The museum’s purchase was funded entirely by a grant backed by the Hungarian government. The new-to-market portrait had been purchased by the seller in 1989 for £880,000.
Some reattributed works formerly thought to have been completed by assistants in van Dyck’s studio have seen new highs at auction. Another picture that achieved one of the artist’s top prices in recent years is the Portrait of Prince Willem II of Orange as a Young Boy, with a Dog. It sold at Sotheby’s in February 2018 for $2.4 million, against an estimate of $2 million. Its exhibition at the Rubenshuis Museum in Antwerp from 2012 to 2016 led scholars to conclude that the portrait of the five-year-old prince was the lost version painted for King Charles I. Before historians made the new attribution, the seller purchased it at Christies New York in 2011 for $290,500, nearly 10 times its $30,000 low estimate.
In November 2020, a rediscovered ornately-painted portrait of a 17th century German-born military official that passed through the hands of Prince de Ligne in Brussels made $2 million, against an estimate of $800,000 at Christie’s. The sale brought the artist to the third highest market share of 6.4 percent in the old masters category, behind Lucas Cranach the Elder and Artemisia Gentileschi at Christie’s and Sotheby’s last Fall. Bolstered by previous royal ownership, its value was also boosted by its exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale’s 2018 showcase, “From Titian to Rubens, Masterpieces from Flemish Collections.”
While the artist’s later period works made when his studio was flourishing typically command his highest prices, a few early-career examples marked by a loosened method of painting that depict common sitters, such as the de Vos family portrait, have achieved several of the artist’s top publicly-recorded prices. Van Dyck’s third-highest auction sale to date was for an early work titled Two Studies of a Bearded Man, which brought in $7.25 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2010 when it sold from the collection of British ranching heir Montgomery Ritchie.
Likewise, in December 2014, another portrait of Antwerp musician Hendrick Liberti sold for $4.5 million to a private collector during a Christie’s auction in London. It came to sale after having been in a private collection since 1923 auction, going long unseen by scholars.