A Van Dyck study bought in 2002 for $600 now goes to auction for $2-3 million

In 2002, a collector bought for $600 an apparently anonymous painting found in a barn. It was later discovered to be an important early study by Anton van Dyck. And now it goes up for auction at Sotheby's with an estimate of $2-3 million.

Going up for auction at Sotheby’s is a sketch by Anton van Dyck (Antwerp,1599 - London, 1641) that was purchased for a mere $600 by an American collector, Albert B. Roberts, who found it at an auction in 2002, where it had been sold after being discovered in a barn in the small town of Kinderhook, New York State. Roberts thought it was a work from the Dutch Golden Age, but he did not submit it to the scholarly community until some time after he bought it.Thus, in 2019, art historian Susan Barnes recognized it as an oil sketch by Van Dyck, calling it an “impressive and important discovery that helps us understand more about the artist’s method as a young man,” and publishing the discovery in 2021 in Burlington Magazine.

Roberts passed away in 2021 at the age of 89 and will therefore not be able to enjoy the fruits of the sale. The work, a study for a figure of St. Jerome, will be sold Jan. 6 at Sotheby’s, with an estimate of $2-3 million. Not bad considering that the current auction record for Van Dyck is $13.5 million, set in 2009 for a self-portrait. The auction catalog states that “this interesting study of the figure of an elderly man represents an important discovery from the early period of Anton van Dyck, an artist second only to Pieter Paul Rubens in the hierarchy of 17th-century Flemish masters.” The work served as a study for the St. Jerome preserved at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, dated by scholars to around 1618-1620. The connection between the Rotterdam painting and the sketch going to auction is “unmistakable,” according to Sotheby’s: “much of the musculature is rendered uniformly and the man’s right arm is positioned almost identically.” The fact that the man in the sketch is facing slightly more to the left, however, makes it clear that “Van Dyck executed this work not as a model for a painting, but rather to understand human anatomy and render it convincingly in space.” As Susan Barnes, who first recognized this lot as Van Dyck’s work, wrote, “...the painting is surprisingly well preserved and the delicate halftones of the arms and legs are intact.”

Van Dyck used this male model on more than one occasion; he also made a double head study of this figure, which served as the basis for several details in other historical paintings, including the remarkable Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, for the figure of St. Peter. Although the lean musculature of the man depicted in this work is based on a live model, the body type has its roots both in antiquity and in the work of Rubens, with whom the young Van Dyck worked closely in those years. The pose is derived from the so-called Borghese Fisherman, a black antique marble now in the Louvre. At the time of Rubens and Van Dyck, the statue was thought to represent the ancient philosopher Seneca, shown dying from self-inflicted stab wounds and standing in a basin of his own blood. In reality, the statue is a Roman copy from a Hellenistic original, which had no legs below mid-calf when it was discovered in the 16th century and probably represents a fisherman standing on a beach. In any case, the marble fascinated Rubens: he made several subsequent drawings, and his Death of Seneca is largely based on his studies after this ancient figure. Van Dyck’s Saint Jerome represents the natural evolution of his studies of the live model. As for the dating of the sketch, Susan Barnes suggests a date of execution around 1618.

An auction that, in short, promises to be interesting.

Anton van Dyck, Studio per san Girolamo (1618 circa; olio su tela applicata a tavola, 95 x 58,5 cm)
Anton van Dyck, Study for Saint Jerome (ca. 1618; oil on canvas applied to panel, 95 x 58.5 cm)

A Van Dyck study bought in 2002 for $600 now goes to auction for $2-3 million
A Van Dyck study bought in 2002 for $600 now goes to auction for $2-3 million

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