Stolen Twice, Titian’s 500-Year-Old ‘The Rest On The Flight Into Egypt’ Sets Record At $22.4 Million

A 500-year-old painting that was stolen twice set a record at auction after selling for tens of millions of dollars. Titian’s “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” reeled in $22.4 million at Christie’s on Tuesday. It’s the most ever paid for a work by the Renaissance artist.

Titian's "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt."
Titian’s “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” (credit: Christie’s)

The masterpiece hit the pre-sale estimates of between $19.1 million to $31.9 million. The painting was first auctioned by Christie’s in 1878.

Titian, whose real name was Tiziano Vecellio, created “The Rest of the Flight into Egypt” around 1510 when he was in his late teens or early 20s. The piece is a rare example of Titian’s early work. At a young age, Titian demonstrated a masterful grasp of emotion and humanity in the piece. The Madonna and Child are shown in an intimate, tender moment at the center of the canvas, while Joseph sits slightly apart, his hunched pose and sensitively rendered face conveying a sense of exhaustion.

“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,” says Andrew Fletcher, Christie’s global head of the Old Masters Department. “It is a picture that embodies the revolution in painting made by Titian at the start of the 16th century and is a truly outstanding example of the artist’s pioneering approach to both the use of color 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.”

As an artist working in early 16th century Venice, Titian had access to an unprecedented range of imported pigments, allowing him to create the vibrant, luminous colors that would become a hallmark of Venetian Renaissance painting. In this piece, Titian uses deeply saturated primary colors — a red robe for Mary, an ultramarine-blue cloak, and a bright yellow mantle for Joseph — to striking effect.

While the original commissioner of the painting is unknown, it has a fascinating provenance. It’s first documented in the early 1600s in the collection of Venetian spice merchant Bartolomeo della Nave, alongside works by other major Renaissance masters like Bellini, Giorgione, and Veronese. The collection was later purchased by James Hamilton, the 1st Duke of Hamilton, and sent to London — but Hamilton, a Royalist, was executed in 1649 during the English Civil War.

The painting then found its way into the hands of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, who was assembling one of the finest art collections of his age. Leopold was so proud of his collection that he had artist David Teniers create a series of “kunstkammer” paintings depicting the gallery interiors with the artworks on the walls — and “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” appears in one of these works, now housed in the Prado in Madrid.

The painting traveled to Vienna with Leopold’s collection, only to be looted by Napoleonic troops in 1809, then returned after Napoleon’s fall. Its later owners included Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, an important patron of J.M.W. Turner, and the Marquess of Bath, who displayed it at Longleat House in Wiltshire.

There’s even an element of intrigue to the painting’s history: In 1995, it made headlines when it was stolen from Longleat. Seven years later, it was discovered in a bag at a London bus stop by renowned art detective Charles Hill and returned to its home.

The painting was part of Christie’s “Old Masters Part I” auction.

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