Van Dyck oil sketch found in farm shed sells for $3 million

Last week, an oil sketch by one of the most important Baroque artists, Anthony van Dyck, has been sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York. Given that the work was found languishing in a farm shed in upstate New York, with bird droppings on its reverse, it is truly remarkable that it was sold for $3 million.

The work, titled A Sketch for Saint Jerome, is thought to have been executed by Van Dyck between 1615 and 1618, when the artist was a teenager working in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens. The work was then used as a study for Van Dyck’s Saint Jerome (1618-20), which is now in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. After being discovered in a shed in Kinderhook, New York in 2002, the work was put up for auction and purchased by a local collector, Albert B. Roberts for only $600. Roberts did not at first realise the work was by Van Dyck, but was convinced that it was a Dutch Golden Age painting. For years Roberts displayed it on his wall, before deciding it was worth doing more research into it. In 2019, Van Dyck expert Susan Barnes authenticated the painting, saying that it was one of only two “live studies” by the artist – meaning that he had painted it directly from a live model. Barnes added that despite its history it was “surprisingly well-preserved” and that it “is an impressive and important find that helps us understand more about the artist’s method as a young man”. Barnes published her research on the painting in The Burlington Magazine in 2021.

Roberts died in 2021, and his estate are selling this painting and other artworks in his collection at auction. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will go to the Albert B. Roberts Foundation, which aims to give financial support to artists, other creatives, and various charities. Christopher Apostle, Head of Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s New York, provided further information on the work. With reference to these types of live studies, Apostle said, “they weren’t really meant to be exhibited. The artist would often keep them in the studio to refer back to later”. Apostle spoke enthusiastically to The Times about the painting, saying that, “what I like about the picture myself is I’m close in age to this guy in the painting . . . the guy is quite muscular and powerful, but he also has a slackness of the skin. There is something quite humane in van Dyck’s portrayal. There is a nobility to it, that’s what he’s trying to capture. That’s what Jerome was, he was a heroic figure.” Van Dyck, Apostle says, “finds someone on the streets of Antwerp, maybe he was a porter or working in the docks. He says, ‘There is my Saint Jerome.’ He finds the nobility in this person.”

How the painting ended up in a farm shed in the Hudson Valley is still undetermined.

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