Auction of the Week: A Long-Lost Painting by Flemish Artist Michael Sweert Fetches $16 Million
The sensational work achieved the top price at the Christie’s Old Masters sale and set a new world record for the artist at auction
Michael Sweerts may not be a household name, but he certainly caused a stir at Christie’s Old Masters sale in London in July. The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress, from circa 1646 to 1652, an unpublished and previously unknown painting by the 17th-century Flemish painter and printmaker of the Baroque period, sold for roughly $16 million, more than six times its low pre-sale estimate of £2 million.
Thought to have been made in 1646-49 in Rome, where the artist lived in the via Margurra before eventually returning to his hometown of Brussels, the painting depicts an atelier with an artist painting a seamstress. The model is being watched by a young studio assistant, who is seated among a grouping of classical sculpture casts. In the background, another artist can spotted behind the doorway. This strange and enigmatic scene is just one of a series of works exploring the studio. Two of Sweert’s best-known works, also from his Roman period, are on the same subject: The Artist’s Studio in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, dated circa-1650 and In the Studio, found in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, dated 1652.
Remarkably, the painting was discovered in a house in France, and the paint surface was almost perfectly intact beneath age-old layers of old varnish. Every detail, including the seamstress’s thread and thimble, was flawlessly clear despite its old age.
After his death, Sweerts became a largely forgotten figure. His artistic identity remained a mystery throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and his works were mostly overlooked or misattributed, according to a statement from Christie’s. It was only in around 1907 that the artist began to be rediscovered thanks to an article written by Willem Martin. “The re-emergence of this picture settles the debate and leaves no doubt that this is the lost original, the popularity of which accounts for the number of copies and versions made after it,” writes Christie’s. The painting also offers a wonderfully intimate glimpse into a 17th century studio in Rome in which we see artists working at their craft.
“This sale was hugely anticipated and achieved the highest sale total for an Old Masters Part I sale at Christie’s London since 2016,” says Clementine Sinclair, head of old masters, London. “The works in the sale garnered much excitement in the Old Masters market, and in the build up to the sale drew record numbers of visitors. All of this underlines the demand for works that are fresh to the market, with interesting provenance and in exceptional original condition.”
Overall, the sale realized a combined total of $86.6 million, achieving sell-through rates of 80 percent by lot and 92 percent by value. Other top lots were Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Willemsz. van der Pluym and Jaapgen Carels, which are the last known pair of portraits by the artist to remain in private hands. They sold for over $14.2 million.