The goddess of love, as imagined by Rubens

The Dutch Master created this work for a patron, then it vanished from view for 400 years. As it goes on sale, Rob Sharp tells its story

Winged cherubs scurry towards a kneeling goddess who gathers them in her embrace in a tender scene drawn almost four centuries ago but rarely seen since.

It was April 1616 when the Flemish Baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens dedicated this intimate drawing of Venus to one of his Dutch patrons.

Soon afterwards it disappeared from view, being passed between private collectors. It most recently cropped up in France before emerging for sale earlier this year. Today it will finally go on display at Sotheby's offices in Bond Street, London.

"The Rubens is a significant, early drawing with great provenance," said Gregory Rubinstein, the worldwide head of Sotheby's old master drawings department. "It's a very beautiful image of a luscious female nude, made as a personal gift to an Antwerp patron, which adds hugely to our knowledge of the time."

The work was the subject of a famous print by the Flemish artist Cornelis Galle that has been studied by art historians for decades. Galle credits this 1616 drawing, Venus Nursing the Cupids, as his inspiration, though mysteriously the art has remained hidden from academics' eyes until now.

The drawing is also considered remarkable because it carries a rare inscription, linking it to the patron in question, Paulus van Halmale. The inscription reads: "To Paulus Halmale, Noblest of men, greatest of senators, whose friendship increases daily, this image is humbly presented by Peter Paul Rubens, in the year 1616, month of April." The relationship between artist and patron continued for most of their lives. Rubens died in 1640.

"It's got what you want from a Rubens drawing," Mr Rubinstein said, "something he took a lot of trouble over. It's probably based on a Classical sculpture of a crouching Venus which he made drawings of during a trip to Italy."

Also appearing in Sotheby's sale of Old Master Drawings in New York in February is a rare Rembrandt drawing, a compositional study begun when the artist was just 22-years old, the first new important historical drawing by the Dutch artist to be seen in several decades.

Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver is a precursor to the famous 1629 masterpiece of the same name. It depicts the famous episode from the Bible in which, following his betrayal of Christ, Judas is seized.

"The Rembrandt is one of the very few drawings that is actually connected with a painting by the artist," Mr Rubinstein said.

"He didn't make a lot of preparatory drawings that relate to his painting, but he did make a small number of drawings exploring ideas and this is one of the ones relating to his important early painting."

This particular drawing is one of three relating to the famous work, but it is the only one indicating the entire composition. Indeed, the production of the work was something of a labour: Rembrandt is known to have sketched out the famous Biblical scene in oil directly on to a panel before deciding it was unsatisfactory.

He made several drawings, of which this sale is one, trying to create alternative solutions. The artist then revised his original composition extensively. That process had a defining influence on Rembrandt's career. In 1630, Constantijin Huygens, one of Rembrandt's most influential countrymen, hailed the young artist as one of the greatest masters who ever lived. He cited Judas's depiction as evidence of Rembrandt's greatness.

"This early endorsement served as the cornerstone of Rembrandt's subsequent critical reputation and contributed to his dramatic rise to fame in the 1630s," Mr Rubinstein said.

Both the Rembrandt and Rubens drawings are expected to raise up to $800,000 (£512,000) at the January auction. Also on sale is a piece by one of Raphael's pupils and associates, Perino del Vaga, Jupiter and Juno in an Alcove Surrounded by several Amorini.