'Lost Rubens' faces Export Ban

January 18 2011

Image of 'Lost Rubens' faces Export Ban

Picture: Sotheby's.

A portrait believed to be by Rubens has been stopped for export by the government's Reviewing Committee. The picture was offered at Sotheby's in December 2009 with an estimate of £4-6m, but failed to sell and is now priced at £1m.

The 'striking portrait of a very real, although unidentified, woman', according to the Committee's Chairman Lord Inglewood, must have presented the panel with a tricky dilemma. The so-called Waverley Criteria, by which a picture is judged to be of national importance, are;

  1. Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
  2. Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  3. Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Now, the picture failed to sell at Sotheby's because some experts doubted it as a work by Rubens. The current price of £1 million must reflect continuing uncertainty over the attribution, for with a certain Rubens endorsement the picture would comfortably make the Sotheby's estimate. 

So, if it is not a Rubens, could the Reviewing Committee really decide that it met any of the Waverley Criteria? This was a picture which had been almost entirely unknown, thus ruling out Waverley 1. As a non-Rubens of a not particularly compelling unidentified sitter it does not meet Waverley 2 either. And it certainly would not meet Waverley 3.

When it was offered at Sotheby's as a Rubens the picture suffered from an enthusiasm amongst some experts to be overly exclusionist, which often happens when a new picture emerges from leftfield with no pedigree.

Personally, I thought the portrait (which is unfinished) was by Rubens when I saw it in 2009, and that Sotheby's had done an excellent job to discover it and catalogue it. In any case, the new overseas owner has, at £1million, surely got a bargain, for it will doubtless be accepted once the initial doubts have died down. These things usually are. 

Update 23.2.11: The painting was submitted for export by the current owners - it has not been sold. See here for more details. 

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