F ew objects are more alluring than the lost painting. Forgotten pictures, whether buried in the eaves of attics, lost through the trials of time or consumed by the wake of war, represent secret histories and, of course, the romance of potential rediscovery.
As illustrated by several rediscovered masterpieces to be offered in Sotheby’s Rembrandt to Richter, Evening Sale on 28 July, any picture can disappear. These works date from the 17th to the 20th century, include still-lifes, portraits and landscapes and touch on Dutch, Italian and Scandinavian traditions.
A work can be lost in many ways: hidden, stolen, misattributed, painted over or simply only known to a chosen few (a private collection can be exceedingly private). Their disappearance can harm scholarly research and our understanding of both collector and artist. There can be a financial loss and sometimes a sentimental one. And, as these works highlight, their rediscovery can bring numerous blessings.
Take Rubens’ woman in black, for instance. His early 17th century portrait of an unidentified but clearly prosperous lady – spirited yet contained – has been hidden in a family collection for nearly a century (and before that in the home of Turner’s great patron Hugh Munro of Novar). Now it emerges to acclaim – “a great discovery,” states Christopher Brown, former director of the Ashmolean Museum – and is restored to its critical position in the oeuvre of Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
Restoration of the Rubens found pentimenti of earlier compositional features, a revelation of the master’s methodology hidden beneath the paint. Similarly, in Frans Hals’ brooding portrait of a gentleman from 1635 – closeted in a New York collection for five decades where it remained unexamined by experts – viewers can now finally discern the subtlety of the Dutchman’s brush. It is a picture that has literally come into the light.
Hals was to painting what Fritz Lang was to film: the shadows were his metier. “Frans Hals has no less than twenty-seven blacks,” observed Vincent Van Gogh. But in this work a further layer of flattening overpaint had created a shroud over the composition. Following cleaning and restoration, the figure has stepped out of the gloom. Its rediscovery also places it, for the first time, in Hals’ catalogue raisonne.
As illustrated by an enigmatic oil by Vilhelm Hammershøi, a little-known work can join art historical dots. The Courtyard, Strandgade 30, painted in 1899, bridges a gap in the story of the Modern Danish master, providing clues to another painting of his first-floor Copenhagen apartment, a celebrated work which now sits in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art. The present picture delivers an echo in miniature of the much larger canvas.
For most of the 20th century this modest but mercurial painting of a merchant’s house remained cocooned in a private Danish collection. The work – a compact and complex geometric arrangement of windows, doors and walls – delivers a revelation in its composition. The viewer is brought into a hidden space. “The artist evokes the same hermetically sealed atmosphere as in his interiors,” explains Claude Piening, head of 19th Century European Pictures at Sotheby’s London. “The courtyard lent itself perfectly to Hammershøi’s vision, being closed on three sides, literally a room turned inside out.”
Two Old Master paintings in the sale – an extraordinary view of Dresden by Bernardo Bellotto and an abundant still life by Abraham Mignon – highlight the importance of restitution, the process of returning looted artworks to their rightful owners or their heirs. Both of these paintings were lost from the collections of Jewish owners due to persecution by the Nazis in the Second World War.
Bellotto’s rendition of Dresden’s baroque Zwinger Palace, imaginatively viewed across its moat, shows Canaletto’s nephew at the height of his powers. Formerly in the collection of the Duke of Saxe-Anhalt, the work was purchased in the 1920s by Max Emden, the charismatic owner of the celebrated KaDeWe store in Berlin. Known as the “department store Gatsby”, Emden was a philanthropist, patron, collector and dedicated follower of the Lebensreform movement, which embraced a return-to-nature approach to life.
In 1927 Emden bought the Brissago Islands on Lake Magiore where he created an idyll of nudism, yoga, starlets and speedboats. The war changed everything: he was financially ruined by the National Socialists. Indeed, the painting’s provenance represents a specific period in German history, a snapshot of the Second World War and its aftermath. First it was sought out and plundered by Hitler for his planned “Führermuseum” in Linz, later it became a feature of the Chancellor’s office in Bonn where it bore silent witness to countless Cold War meetings. Following its restitution, its appearance at auction is a spectacle worthy of Max Emden.
Mignon’s feast of a painting – a 17th-century bounty of grapes, peaches, melons, flagons of wine and songbirds – also had noble origins, having once been in the Saxon Royal Collection. Fatefully, however, by the early 20th century it had made its way into the collection of Ludwig Traube, a Jewish owner of a Berlin publishing house. Following Traube’s death in 1928, his widow Gertrud married Eduard Bühler, also a Jewish publisher. Disbarred from ownership of businesses by the Nazi regime, they were forced to sell assets, including the Mignon, to fund their departure for Brussels.
A picture taken from a wall can mark a greater absence than that of a missing possession. “A picture being ‘lost’ often hints at the fate of its owners, who were often also lost,” notes Richard Aronowitz, head of Restitution for Sotheby’s Europe. “So, material loss hints at a much deeper tragedy, even if not loss of life, then loss of livelihood or home or motherland, or often all three.”
Being fresh to the market and of exceptional quality, works such as the Bellotto and the Mignon, indeed all of these rediscoveries, are highly sought after when they do re-emerge. They can create painful reminders of the past but they also allow for the possibility of illumination, even redemption. “Away from market imperatives,” Aronowitz explains, “what we gain is an ability to fill in a tiny piece of history, to renegotiate the past and the narrative of a human being or family through a long-lost or long-hidden-away item that once belonged to them.”