Feb. 3, 2022


Expected to be largest ever art sale in Central and Eastern Europe.


An auction that will go down in the history of the Polish art market will be held on 17 March 2022 in Warsaw. The 17th-century Portrait of a Lady by Peter Paul Rubens will go under the hammer at DESA Unicum, the leading auction house in Central and Eastern Europe. With an estimate of PLN 18–24 million (EUR 3,9–4,8 million), this distinguished canvas by the Baroque master may become the most expensive work of art ever sold in Poland, and is expected to attract the attention of art collectors not only from the region, but also from around the world.

Portrait of a Lady, maintained for four centuries in the collections of European aristocrats, financiers and well-known collectors, will be shown publicly for the first time since 1965 at the exhibition preceding the auction.

The painting depicts a young woman with dark eyes and hair, in a black velvet dress. For over 300 years the work was regarded as a portrait of Isabella Brant, the first wife of Rubens, but it is now believed that it may depict one of her sisters. According to another hypothesis, the model was a member of the Duarte family, influential Jewish jewellers in 17th-century Antwerp. This may be supported by the characteristic gems that are part of the woman's outfit.

A recently completed conservation exercise, technical examination and stylistic attribution research by the Courtauld Institute and others confirmed the work of Rubens, with the involvement of his workshop. The research also determined that this portrait shows higher quality of execution than the two other existing versions of the work at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Wallace Collection in London.

The portrait by Rubens presented by DESA Unicum has a fully documented history, from the moment it left the artist's studio in Antwerp in around 1626 until the present day. One of the first owners of the canvas was Sir Peter Lely, a friend of Rubens and art collector. Then for two centuries the painting was found in Stowe House, in the collection of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos. Sold at Christie's in London in 1848, in the mid-20th century, Portrait of a Lady was part of the Paris collection of the family of the Egyptian Prince Mohammed Ali Ibrahim and Princess Hanzade, where it remained until 2011. The last time it was viewed on exhibition was in Brussels in 1965.

Portraits painted by Rubens rarely appear at auction. In July 2020 Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Chain was sold at Christie's for nearly GBP 4 million, and three years earlier Sotheby's showed Portrait of a Lady in a Black Dress and Cloak, Before a Red Drape, which ultimately sold for GBP 3 million. Since 2002, the most expensive work by the Flemish artist has remained the monumental canvas The Massacre of the Innocents, sold at Sotheby's for GBP 49,5 million, eight times the upper estimate, followed by the painting Lot and His Daughters, for which a buyer paid GBP 44,88 million in 2016.

With a price estimate of PLN 18–24 million (EUR 3,9–4,8 million), the painting by Rubens may become the most expensive work of art ever sold in Poland. The appearance on the Polish market of such a rare and precious painting as Portrait of a Lady confirms the rising importance of Poland on the European art market. In 2021 the value of the Polish market exceeded PLN 634 million, nearly 67% greater than the previous year. With a turnover of more than PLN 280 million, DESA Unicum contributed greatly to the growth of the Polish market, maintaining the position of 8th-largest auction house in Europe and the largest institution of this type in Central & Eastern Europe, according to Artnet.

“The presentation of Portrait of a Lady by Peter Paul Rubens in Warsaw is an event of huge importance for the art market," said Juliusz Windorbski, President of DESA SA.

“This work, nearly 400 years old, has remained in private hands in recent decades, and has not been shown publicly since 1965. Portraits by the Flemish painter rarely appear in Europe, and a work of art with such huge historical, artistic and investment value has never been shown before in Poland. This distinguished work, with a model provenance and confirmed authenticity, can reinforce Poland's already strong position on the auction map of Europe. Last year alone, DESA Unicum exhibited works by such world renowned figures as Auguste Rodin and Chen Wenling."