Auction House Withdraws $35M Velázquez Portrait From Catalog

The auction house announced that a valuable Diego Velázquez portrait of Queen Isabel de Borbón would go under the hammer in February 2024—however, the painting recently disappeared from the sales catalog. 

At the tail end of 2023, Sotheby’s announced that it would be auctioning a portrait by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez during its Old Master Paintings auction on February 1, 2024. This would’ve marked the first time the painting entered the market in half a century, with a guaranteed sale of $35 million. However, a recent feature from The Art Newspaper’s Anny Shaw revealed that Sotheby’s had “quietly” withdrawn the work prior to the release of its online catalog last December 21. 

Sotheby’s quietly removed the highly-anticipated Isabel de Borbón portrait before releasing its Old Master Paintings catalog in December
Sotheby’s quietly removed the highly-anticipated Isabel de Borbón portrait before releasing its Old Master Paintings catalog in December/Photo via Twitter @Sothebys

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Auction Pause

According to ARTnews correspondent Francesca Aton, Sotheby’s released a statement on the matter, explaining that there were “ongoing discussions” with the consignors. Its current owners have kept the portrait within their family since 1978, as per Barron’s

In her feature, Aton adds that there’s been speculation of a U.S. museum acquiring the painting, hence its removal from Sotheby’s catalog. The auction house has not commented on the matter, though it said that all parties are anticipating the sale of the painting “in the near future.” 

A Closer Look at the Painting

The full-length, two-meter portrait features none other than a young Isabel de Borbón, the former queen of Spain and wife to King Philip IV. In a statement on the work, Sotheby’s explained that Velázquez paintings of such caliber are rarely seen in the market, as they’re often in royal collections or museums, reports Liz Lucking of Barron’s

The portrait of Isabel de Borbón by Diego Velázquez
The portrait of Isabel de Borbón by Diego Velázquez/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In a November 2023 feature, Artnet correspondent Adam Schrader wrote that the portrait depicts Isabel de Borbón in her 20s wearing an opulent black court dress. During this period, the queen was at her most powerful, as she had gained the admiration of her subjects through her “intelligence and generosity.” When Diego Velázquez started the work in the late 1620s, many already knew and revered him as a skilled painter. However, he would later return to the work in 1631 after meeting Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, who encouraged him to study the Italian masters, Schrader elaborated. 

As such, Sotheby’s stated that viewers may spot small revisions by the artist in the portrait, including the changed outline of the queen’s skirt, as per Barron’s

Far from Home

Upon its completion, the portrait hung in the Spanish royal collection as the partner to another Velázquez painting of Philip IV, reported Anny Shaw of The Art Newspaper. However, it left Madrid during Napoleon’s invasion, reappearing in France’s Musée du Louvre in 1838, during King Louis Philippe’s rule. After King Louis Philippe fell from power, Christie’s sold the painting to Henry Huth, a merchant banker and book collector. 

Velázquez’s painting of King Philip IV of Spain that served as a companion piece to his wife’s portrait until Napoleon’s invasion
Velázquez’s painting of King Philip IV of Spain that served as a companion piece to his wife’s portrait until Napoleon’s invasion/Photo from the MET Museum website

Huth hung the work in Wykehurst Park in Sussex, England, where it remained in his family’s possession, as per Artnet. In 1950, the painting entered the public market in what would be the last time in 50 years before ending up in the hands of its current owners. 

Spanish artist, Diego Velázquez, in a self-portrait (c. 1650)
Spanish artist, Diego Velázquez, in a self-portrait (c. 1650)/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“Royal portraiture allowed Velázquez to push forward art in new and revolutionary ways and this grand portrayal of Isabel de Borbón is an exceptional example of the artist at the height of his powers, shaping the direction of portraiture for generations to follow,” shared George Wachter, Sotheby’s chair and co-worldwide head of old master paintings, as per Harriet Sherwood  of The Guardian. “No other Velázquez paintings of this scale and importance have come to the market in more than half a century.”

A League of Its Own

Before Sotheby’s withdrew the Velázquez portrait from its upcoming auction, the piece was poised to break personal records of the late artist. No painting of its kind has gone up for auction since Velázquez’s 1650 work “Juan de Pareja,” which sold for $2.9 million in 1970, as per Artnet

Meanwhile, the artist’s most valuable painting to this day is “Saint Ruffina,” which fetched $16.9 million in a 2007 Sotheby’s London auction, according to Barron’s. If the Isabel de Borbón portrait went under the hammer, it would’ve easily surpassed the present record of the Spanish master. Though the fate of the work remains to be seen, it’ll surely remain a highly-coveted piece given its provenance and quality. 

Banner photo by Diego Velázquez via Wikimedia Commons.

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