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The auction record for 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, famed for his royal portraits, could more than double early next year when Sotheby’s offers his painting Isabel de Borbón, Queen of Spain (1632), with an estimate in the region of $35m, during the auction house’s Old Masters sales.
The painting shows Elisabeth of France, Queen of Spain, the French-born queen who was the daughter of Henri IV of France and his wife, Marie de Médici. (Her mother is the subject of a famous series of two-dozen paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.) At age 13, Elisabeth took the Spanish name Isabel when she married the future Philip IV of Spain, a major patron of European artists including Velázquez. In the portrait, Isabel is shown in her twenties.
Sotheby’s says the portrait is the most important work by Velázquez to come to the market in more than 50 years, since his work Juan de Pareja sold for £2.3m in 1970, breaking the record for the most expensive painting sold at auction at the time. (The painting now hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which this year staged the first institutional exhibition devoted to Pareja, who was an artist in his own right.) Velázquez’s current auction record is $16.9m, set in 2007 at Sotheby’s London by his portrait Saint Rufina (1629-32).
The 1623 painting of Isabel hung for years at the Buen Retiro royal palace in Madrid, side-by-side with Velázquez’s famed Philip IV in Black (1623), now located at the Museo del Prado. The portrait was taken to France after Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and displayed in the so-called “Spanish Gallery” at the Louvre during King Louis Philippe’s reign. When the kind fell from power in 1838, it was sold during a Christie’s sale to Henry Huth, a merchant who displayed it at Wykehurst Place, his mansion in West Sussex. It remained with Huth’s descendents until 1950, and the painting most recently changed hands in 1978.
The painting is on display at Sotheby’s galleries in London from Friday (1 December) until 6 December, and then in New York ahead of Sotheby’s evening auction of Old Master paintings on 1 February 2024.
The painting could provide a boost for the Old Masters market, which constitutes a much smaller portion of the overall art market than it did for decades. European Old Masters made up just 4% of the art market’s $67.8bn in sales in 2022, according to Art Basel and UBS’s most recent Art Market Report.