Art pieces derive their worth from the perceived value of those appreciating them. There have been several instances of art being misvalued, and someone either earns big or loses in the deal. A recent example occurred in January 2023, when Sotheby’s sold a painting for $3.1 million. The same painting was bought for $600 in the late 20th century.
When part-time art collector, Albert B. Roberts saw the painting for the first time, it was in a farm shed in New York. The back of the painting was covered in bird droppings, and many would not have attached much importance to it. Roberts did, though, as he recognised it to be a work of the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck.
The origin of the painting was traced to the early 17th century, sometime between 1615 and 1618. It is believed to be a study for Van Dyck’s Saint Jerome with an Angel displayed in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The life study, a drawing of the human figure from a live model, shows an older man sitting nude on a stool.
According to an article in The Times, the head of the Old Master Paintings Department at Sotheby’s in New York, Christopher Apostle explains that life studies are rarely meant to be displayed. Most artists create them to leave them in their studios to refer to later. Thus, Van Dyck probably never intended to exhibit this painting, but it was later shown alongside Saint Jerome by the museum that hosted the latter.
The life study captivates viewers’ attention as the subject was uncommon in a fascinating way. The man was old, as is clear from his greying hair and sagging skin. However, Van Dyck strived to portray the man’s strength through his muscular build and defined features. The effort ensured the work came out as intended – to illustrate Jerome as a hero.
The state of the painting fascinates people. When he displayed the painting, Roberts described it as being in “its pristine condition” which “happens to include bird droppings on the back.” Susan Barnes, an art historian, commented that the painting was “surprisingly well-preserved” despite the bird droppings. Its importance is also increased by it being one of Van Dyck’s two life studies of such scale to survive to date.
Curious observers also state that the painting must have been made when Van Dyck worked in Peter Rubens’ studio in Antwerp. As Van Dyck rapidly developed into a prodigious artist, his style evolved more to resemble that of Rubens’. This development is suspected of having caused some rift between the two, as Van Dyck had to leave the studio after a while. Saint Jerome is believed to have been made before he left. Therefore, he most likely was in his late teenage years. The Flemish painter’s outstanding talent would later help him become a court artist to Charles I.
Roberts’ family decided to sell the painting, with a part of the proceeds going to the Albert B. Roberts Foundation, which promotes artists, creatives, and charities. The sale caught more interest for being the latest of lost paintings to be discovered.