A Twice-Stolen Titian Could Fetch $31M at Auction

Once looted by Napoleon's forces, the early Titian will hit the block at Christie's in July.

Large oil painting depicting the Virgin Mary cradling an infant.
Titian, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, (1510). Courtesy Christie's

An early Titian masterpiece with a storied past will highlight Christie's Old Master offerings this July. The 16th-century painting, which measures two feet wide and depicts the Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus, has been stolen not once but twice. The colorful history of Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt also includes an impressive list of owners ranging from Holy Roman Emperors to Dukes and Archdukes. Coming to the market for the first time in 145 years, it is expected to fetch between £15 million ($19 million) and £25 million ($31.6 million) at auction.

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The work exemplifies Titian’s “pioneering approach to both the use of color and the representation of the human form in the natural world,” said Andrew Fletcher, Christie’s global head of the Old Masters department, in a statement. “This is the most important work by Titian to come to the auction market in more than a generation and one of the very few masterpieces by the artist remaining in private hands.”

Generally dated to 1510, the painting was first documented in the collection of Bartolomeo della Nave, a Venetian merchant working in the spice trade who valued the work at £200 in 1636. It later made its way to England when it was acquired by James, 1st Duke of Hamilton. Following Hamilton’s execution in 1649, the Titian ended up in the hands of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands.

A series of thefts

Remaining in the Imperial collection, Rest on the Flight into Egypt was passed down to Holy Roman Emperors and Empresses like Charles VI, Maria Theresa and Joseph II before it was transferred in 1781 to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. This is where, more than two decades later, the painting was looted by French troops for the Musée Napoléon, which stored mass inventories of stolen works through the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It later appeared in the possession of Scottish landowner Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro and in 1878 was acquired at a Christie’s auction by the 4th Marquess of Bath. In 1995, a group of thieves made their way to the Longleat, the Wiltshire country estate of the Bath family. Propping up a ladder to smash an upstairs window, they made off with the Titian that had been hanging in the house’s formal drawing room. “It is most sad that it has been taken from under one’s nose,” the 7th Marquess of Bath, who was sitting at home watching television during the theft, told reporters at the time.

SEE ALSO: On the Life and Art of Alberto Giacometti

Seven years later, the small artwork was finally recovered by Charles Hill. The art detective and former Scotland Yard officer also played a part in the return of works like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which was stolen from Oslo National Gallery in 1994. After years spent searching for the lost Titian, Hill in 2002 was contacted by a man offering up its whereabouts in exchange for money. After the duo met, the art detective was led to a London bus station where the undamaged painting was safely stashed in a plastic bag. It returned home to Longleat after conservation work.

Now, Longleat estate trustees and the painting’s current owner Lord Bath are offering up the painting “as part of their long-term investment strategy,” according to Christie’s. After a wild ride over the past five centuries, the early Titian will find a new home on July 2 when it leads Christie’s Old Masters Part I sale in London.

A Twice-Stolen Titian Could Fetch $31M at Auction