Frieze Art Fair: Flemish old master 'The Census at Bethlehem' discovered in East Africa after four centuries sold for £6m

  • @MrNickClark

The Frieze Art Fair closed on Sunday leaving thousands of visitors by turns in raptures, enraged or simply befuddled.

The big international buyers were in town and Frieze revealed the sales highlights of the four-day fair.

One of the most eye-catching deals was not millions paid for a Jeff Koons or a Damien Hirst, but a work by Flemish old master that had been discovered in East Africa after four centuries.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Brueghel the Younger attracted significant attention after it went on display at Frieze Masters, as its existence had previously been unknown. Frieze revealed it had sold for £6 million.

Johnny Van Haeften, who runs a gallery in London, specialises in 17 century Dutch and Flemish old master paintings. He described the chance discovery of the work as a “holy grail” for someone with his specialism.

The oil painting, most recently owned by a descendant of the third Lord Delamere, dates to 1611 and was sold by Brueghel’s studio directly to the family that has just sold it, and no record of it existed.

The family took it to their home in Cheshire in the 17 century. Mr Van Haeften said: “It survived all the vicissitudes of the civil war and everything else. In the 1940s when they emigrated, they took it with them.”

Mr Van Haeften was introduced to the family’s lawyer who was seeking a specialist to sell the work. He was “stunned” when he saw it at the family home. “It was completely unknown. I was the first art dealer or historian to clap eyes on it.”

He was brought back down to earth when taking down the picture to examine it a dead gecko fell out.

The painting was a copy of a work by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which is in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. There are 13 other versions, nine of which are in museums.

The demand for the Brueghels’ work in the 17th Century meant the studio produced multiple versions of every study. Mr Van Haeften said: “He was quite prolific but it is rare to get Brueghels on this scale.”

The family had preserved the receipt for 200 florins for the painting from Brueghel’s studio right up until the 20 century, but sadly it was lost in the 1950s.

Other major sales include Picasso’s Femme Assise au Chapeau sold by Acquavella Gallery for about $8m, and a Jean-Michel Basquiat work which went for about $5m.

In Frieze London, gallery Thaddaeus Ropac sold a monumental Georg Baselitz sculpture called Yellow Song for $1.8m. A large scale painting by British Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili was sold for $500,000 by the David Zwirner gallery.