Rubens drawing fetches US$8.2 million at controversial auction

A drawing by Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens sold for US$8.2 million in an auction in New York. (AFP Relaxnews pic)

Sotheby’s described the small, rectangular “Nude Study of a Young Man with Raised Arms” as a key piece in the development of one of the artist’s pivotal commissions, and one of only a handful of drawings of comparable importance by Rubens to have come on the market in the last half-century.

Depicting a muscular, nearly nude young man who strains as he pushes an unseen weight above his head, the drawing was used in the preparation of Ruben’s famous “Raising of the Cross” triptych, painted in 1610.

It was acquired by the Dutch royal family in 1838 by Prince William of Orange, who became the Netherlands’s King William II.

Unlike many monarchies, the Orange-Nassau dynasty, whose fortune Forbes magazine estimated to be US$220 million in 2011, owns personal assets separate from the institution’s official holdings.

Dutch museums responded with criticism in recent weeks after the announcement that several works of art from the royal collection would be put up for auction.

Some believed that Princess Christina, who owned the Rubens drawing sold Wednesday, should have given museums the chance to buy the work, which they see as part of Dutch cultural heritage, before selling it at auction abroad.

Members of the D66 party, which is part of the governing coalition, also expressed reservations about the sale, before Culture Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven cut short the debate, saying the decision of whether or not to sell a work of art was up to the owner.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte added it was a “private matter.”

“It’s an important distinction here that this drawing is actually the private property of a private individual,” head of old master drawings at Sotheby’s Greg Rubenstein.

“It doesn’t belong to a royal collection or a public collection. As such, the owner is entirely able to do what they will, which includes selling.”

After several hectic minutes marked by a bidding battle between an in-person buyer and another over the phone Wednesday, the drawing finally sold for US$7 million, which came to a total of US$8.2 million after fees and commissions – much higher than Sotheby’s US$2.5 to US$3.5 million estimates. The buyer was not identified.

The previous record for a drawing from a Dutch master was set during a 2014 Christie’s sale in London when the only known preparatory drawing from Ruben’s “Samson and Delilah” went for 3.2 million pounds (US$5.5 million).