Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Titian will be offered with an estimate of £15m-25m at Christie’s Old Masters Part I sale on July 2.

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The early work Rest on the Flight into Egypt has an eminent provenance which includes Napoleon and the Venetian merchant Bartolomeo della Nave (1571/79-1632) who owned 15 works by the artist. The Longleat picture was valued at £200 in della Naves's inventory, much higher than the Titian’s later works.

It was infamously stolen from Lord Bath's Longleat estate in Wiltshire in January 1995 and was missing for seven years before being recovered by Scotland Yard art detective, the late Charles Hill, who received it in a plastic carrier bag in south-west London in 2002.

The auction at Christie’s Old Masters Part I sale on July 2, marks the first time it will be on the market in more than 145 years. It was last purchased by 4th Marquess of Bath at Christie’s in 1878.

The 7th Marquess of Bath, Alexander George Thynn (1932-2020) died of Covid and his son Ceawlin Thynn, 8th Marquess of Bath, along with the Longleat trustees is offering the picture at auction as “part of their long-term investment strategy”.

Venetian renaissance painter Tiziano Vecelli (1488/90-1576), known as Titian, is believed to have painted the artwork in c.1510, although some specialists have argued it could be as early as 1508-9.

Royal ownership

Following della Nave’s death, much of his collection was acquired by James, 1st Duke of Hamilton and sent to England. After Hamilton’s execution by parliament in 1649, the collection was sold to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647-56. It remained in the imperial collection – passing by descent from Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor (1685-1740), to Maria Theresa (1717-80), Holy Roman Empress, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, to Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor (1741-90). It was transferred to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna by 1781 but looted by French troops in 1809 for the Musée Napoléon.

The painting was returned to Vienna in 1815 and by the mid 19th century it belonged to Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar (1797-1864), a Scottish landowner, amateur artist and one of the most important patrons of JMW Turner who formed an impressive art collection. In 1878 it was offered at auction where the Marquess of Bath bought it.

Orlando Rock, chairman of Christie’s UK, said: “This sublime early masterpiece by Titian is one of the most poetic products of Titian’s youth. Of impeccable provenance and having passed through the hands of Dukes, Archdukes and Holy Roman Emperors, this magical devotional painting has the rare notoriety of having been stolen not once but twice – firstly by Napoleon and secondly in the 1990s.”

“Drama of colour”

The picture is highly regarded. For instance British art historian, Courtauld Institute of Art professor, and Italian Renaissance specialist Paul Hills commended the picture in the 2012 National Gallery exhibition. He said: “The red of the Virgin’s dress, offset by the [white] napkin, is treated with marvellous breadth, and the ultramarine of her cloak is spread across the bank to meet the strong amber of Joseph’s mantle, which in turn contrasts with the violet of his robe. The solicitous movement of the figures, counterpoised by the tilt of tree-trunks, is underscored by this drama of colour.”

Andrew Fletcher, Christie's global head of the Old Masters department, said: “This is a truly outstanding example of the artist's pioneering approach to both the use of colour and the representation of the human form in the natural world, the artistic vocabulary that secured his status as the first Venetian painter to achieve fame throughout Europe in his lifetime and his position as one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art.”