Home » Twice-stolen Titian painting sold for record $22 million

Twice-stolen Titian painting sold for record $22 million

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An early Titian masterpiece — once looted by Napolean’s troops and a part of royal collections for centuries — caused a stir when it was stolen from the home of a British marquess in 1995. Seven years later, it was found inside an unassuming white and blue plastic bag at a bus stop in southwest London by an art detective, and returned.

This week, the oil painting “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” sold for more than $22 million at Christie’s. It was a record for the Renaissance artist, whom museums describe as the greatest painter of 16th-century Venice. Ahead of the sale in April, the auction house billed it as “the most important work by Titian to come to the auction market in more than a generation.”

“This result is a tribute to the impeccable provenance and quiet beauty of this sublime early masterpiece by Titian, which is one of the most poetic products of the artist’s youth,” Orlando Rock, chairman of Christie’s U.K., said in a statement.

The small, 18 1/4-by-24 3/4-inch canvas is believed to have been painted around 1510, the auction house said.

It is inspired by a biblical event, when Joseph took Mary and a young Jesus to Egypt after a dream warned him that King Herod was seeking to kill his son, Christie’s said. The painting depicts Mary cradling Jesus as Joseph looks on in a rural setting.


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The colors are luminous and rich, dominated by primary hues such as Mary’s deep red robe and ultramarine-blue cloak.

Titian is known for his use of the “colorito” technique, where color is employed dominantly for sensual expressive purposes and as an element of the composition. He gained international fame for his religious paintings, incisive portraits and poetic renditions of mythological subjects, the Metropolitan Museum of Art says.

Titian was born Tiziano Vecellio in a small town in the Dolomite mountains, according to London’s The National Gallery and is said to have arrived in Venice at the age of 10. He found early success with his work on the facade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on the Venetian Grand Canal, the museum says, adding that Titian went on to become the principal painter at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He died of the plague in 1576.

“The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” has also captured attention for its provenance, not just its record price.

While it is not known who commissioned the painting, it is first documented as part of a Venetian spice merchant’s collection in the early decades of the 17th century, according to Christie’s.

In the following centuries, the auction house says, the painting passed through multiple hands, including an English duke and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, and was looted from Vienna by Napoleon’s troops but returned to the city after his fall. Ultimately, it was acquired by John Alexander Thynne, the 4th Marquess of Bath in 1878.

However, the painting’s dramatic story continued to unravel. In 1995, it was stolen from Thynne’s home in Wiltshire, southwest England, and recovered miraculously in 2002 following the announcement of a $127,000 reward, Christie’s said in April ahead of the auction. Charles Hill, a leading art detective, found it inside a bag without its frame at a London bus-stop, it added.

“This picture has captured the imaginations of audiences for more than half a millennia and will no doubt continue to do so,” Rock from the auction house said in a statement after the sale.

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