Velázquez Portrait Expected to Shatter Auction Records Quietly Withdrawn

The sellers reportedly hit pause on the auction of the artist's 'Isabel de Borbón.' Could a museum sale be in the works?

Portrait of Isabel de Borbon by Velazquez at Sotheby's in London
Technicians examine the portrait during a photocall at Sotheby’s London in December. Future Publishing via Getty Imag

Velázquez’s Isabel de Borbón, Queen of Spain could have become the artist’s most expensive painting when it went to auction at Sotheby's in February, but the masterpiece was withdrawn without much fanfare at some point before the catalogue for the auction house’s upcoming sale of Old Master works went live.

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The full-length royal portrait, which depicts the first wife of Philip IV of Spain and daughter of Henri IV of France and was painted in the early 1630s, had an estimate in the region of $35 million. The current auction record for a Velázquez work was set in 2007 when his Saint Rufina realized $16.9 million at Sotheby’s in London, and paintings by the artist rarely go on public sale. Due to their historical significance and rarity, most are held in museums or royal collections—his Queen Isabel may be the last major Diego Velázquez royal portrait in private hands.

“No other Velázquez paintings of this scale and importance have come to the market in more than half a century,” George Wachter, Sotheby’s chairman and co-worldwide head of Old Master paintings, said in a statement announcing the sale.

After the listing disappeared, some speculated that Isabel de Borbón, Queen of Spain might have been purchased by a museum in the United States, but several Spanish publications have since put the rumor to bed. Sotheby’s reportedly confirmed that the New York-based private trust that owns the portrait hit pause on the sale “due to ongoing discussions on their side,” but that both parties “look forward to offering this exceptional painting for sale in the near future.”

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The Spanish daily EL PAÍS dug into whether the Museo del Prado or Spain’s Ministry of Culture might attempt to stop the sale of the portrait or initiate litigation to force repatriation of the painting to Spain. But while the high-profile work does have clear ties to Spain, there’s no clear roadmap for applying art looting laws retroactively. Additionally, Velázquez’s Isabel de Borbón has come to auction and been exhibited several times, meaning the nation has had ample time to lay claim to the high-profile work.

Velázquez’s depiction of Queen Isabel was displayed for years at Madrid’s Buen Retiro Palace (alongside the artist’s Philip IV in Black, now at the Prado) before being taken by parties unknown during Napoleon’s 1808 Invasion of Spain. It reappeared thirty years later in King Louis Philippe’s Spanish gallery at the Louvre. It was later sold via Christie’s to Henry Huth, an English merchant banker and prominent book collector, who exhibited it at the Wykehurst Park mansion in Sussex, England. The work remained with the Huth family until 1950, when it went to auction and was subsequently sold in a series of private sales in the U.S. The current owners, who remain unidentified, have kept the portrait in their collection for 45 years.

Velázquez Portrait Expected to Shatter Auction Records Quietly Withdrawn