A Titian Masterpiece, Stolen by Napoleon and Once Found at a Bus Stop, Heads to Auction

The painting has seen its share of adventures and will no doubt exceed the Renaissance master’s auction high.

Titian, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Courtesy Christie's.

A small painting by the young Tiziano Vecellio, known to history as Titian, is bound to set a new auction high for the artist when it goes to the block at Christie’s London next month. 

The July 2 Old Masters sale will feature the two-foot-wide The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which is estimated at £15 million to £25 million ($19.1 million to $31.9 million). Covered by a third-party guarantee and thus ensured to sell, it’s also bound to exceed the artist’s current auction high of $16.9 million, set by A Sacra Conversazione: The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria at Sotheby’s New York in 2011.

The painting most likely dates from when the Renaissance master was but a teenager. At the time, Venice counted among the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities, and, as a hub for trade in dyes and textiles, it supplied artists with an array of precious pigments from abroad. 

The painting’s extensively documented history starts out in the distinguished collection of Venetian spice merchant Bartolomeo della Nave, known for holdings of more than 230 paintings, including examples by Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and Veronese. It later passed through the hands of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria; Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI; Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia; and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, all before being looted by French troops for the Musée Napoléon. 

It later sold at Christie’s in 1878 for 350 guineas (the most of any of the 11 Titians in the sale) to the dealer Colnaghi, who sold it to John Alexander Thynne, fourth Marquess of Bath, of Longleat House, Warminster, Wiltshire. Thynne’s descendants are offering the piece for sale.

The painting had a lengthy adventure in 1995, when it was stolen from Longleat, where it had hung since the Christie’s sale. The owners enlisted former Scotland Yard agent and art detective Charles Hill to find the painting, valued at £5 million at the time. He was led to the painting, frameless in a shopping bag, at a bus stop in London some seven years later in return for a £100,000 reward. It returned to Longleat and has been there ever since, except for the 2012 exhibition “Titian’s First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt” at the National Gallery, London.

Also featured in the sale is a recently restored Quentin Metsys painting, The Madonna of the Cherries, which is expected to fetch as much as £12 million ($15.2 million), far exceeding his current high of $1.9 million. Works by George Stubbs, Frans Hals, and Pieter Brueghel the Younger will also be on offer.

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