An exceptionally rare painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), which had been hanging in a French home since 1900, has sold for €780,000 (£680,000) in Paris. It is one of the 17th-century Flemish artist’s largest known works, measuring 112cm high and 184cm wide.
Malo de Lussac of the auctioneers Daguerre stumbled across the painting during an estimation visit at a large family home in Northern France. It was hanging inconspicuously behind a door in a dimly lit TV room, gathering dust for many years. “My heart was beating so hard,” recalled de Lussac.
The family, who wish to remain anonymous, had owned the painting since the late 1800’s and believed it to be merely a fake. Its provenance before then remains a complete mystery. “In the family it was known as ‘the Brueghel’ but they had no idea it was a real one. They thought it was a copy; just a bit of decoration that wasn’t worth very much,” said de Lussac.
Acting on a hunch, De Lussac sent the work to experts in Germany where it was indeed verified as a genuine Brueghel. When the family finally realised that they had been living with an international masterpiece for decades, de Lussac described the moment as “both funny and touching.”
Brueghel was the oldest son of the Dutch and Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525/1530-1569). He was a prolific artist, painting landscapes and religious subjects, as well as making copies of his father’s artworks.
Painted between 1615 and 1617, ‘L’Avocat du village’ (the Village Lawyer) is a rare version of a theme Brueghel reproduced up to 90 times. About 30 of these versions are signed, including one dating from around 1617 in the Louvre, Paris. In the chaotic scene, a disheartened group of villagers queue behind a desk to see a man presumably collecting taxes. The exact subject matter is still debated, although the tax collector or lawyer is widely thought to be a critique of the Spanish occupation of the southern Netherlands.
Valued between €600,000 and €800,000 (£520,000-£700,000), the newly attributed painting was sold alongside 60 other lots at the Daguerre auction house in Paris on 28 March 2023. It achieved close to the top estimate at €780,000 (£680,000). De Lussac concluded that unearthing Brueghel’s lost masterpiece was “one of those unique finds that happens once in a career.”