Sotheby's £49.5m Old Master painted 'too late' to be by Rubens

Less than a month after Rubens's Massacre of the Innocents sold for a record £49.5m at Sotheby's in London, questions have been raised about whether it is by the Flemish master after all.

Scientific dating of the picture suggests that it may have been painted years after the dates 1609 to 1611 ascribed to it by art historians in the auction house's sales catalogue.

If this were the case, the painting's attribution would be cast into doubt, as its purist classical style is radically different from the work Rubens is known to have been producing by 1615.

News of the disparity has been greeted with astonishment by senior academics including James Beck, Professor of Art History at Columbia University, who described it as "potentially devastating".

However, Sotheby's insist that the painting, credited to Jan van der Hoecke until it was re-attributed after being discovered in an Austrian monastery, was authenticated as a Rubens by the world's leading experts on the artist.

The new debate arises from a complex analysis of the dating of one of the painting's wooden panels included in a detailed technical report commissioned by Sotheby's.

In it, Dr Peter Klein, one of the world's foremost dendrochronologists, states that the earliest possible felling date for the tree from which the wood was taken is 1607. However, he goes on to write: "More plausible is a felling date of 1611 ... 1613... 1617 plus."

Dr Klein, who had to use probability theory to judge the number of outer sapwood rings that had disappeared from the Baltic oak timbers before their incorporation into the painting, adds: "With a minimum of two years for seasoning, an earliest creation of the painting is possible from 1609 upwards. Under the assumption of a median of 15 sapwood rings and two years for seasoning, a creation is plausible from 1615 upwards."

Dr Klein told The Independent on Sunday: "The statistical numbers are only a help for further discussion. I am not an art historian. I cannot say that it is a Rubens or not."

Rubens did not sign his work. While many of his later paintings have been securely attributed with the help of accompanying documentation, no such written records exist for his earlier pieces.

Dr Klein said: "The entire attribution is only based on an idea of what Rubens's style probably would have been after he got back [to Antwerp] from Italy. That seems to me quite shabby."

Critics point to several further findings in the document, including an analysis of the picture's colour scheme by Dr Nicholas Eastaugh, in which he highlights a pigment, orpiment, that has never before been found in a Rubens.

The painting's new owner, Lord Thomson of Fleet, who was bought it by his son, David Thomson, the billionaire newspaper tycoon, was unavailable for comment.

A Sotheby's spokeswoman said the study of growth rings on wooden artefacts was a matter of "if, but and maybe".

"The art historians we consulted were all agreed that this was a Rubens and that the most likely date for it was between 1609 and 1611. We didn't just think to ourselves, 'This looks like a Rubens.'"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there