Renaissance masterpiece hidden by Nazis in salt mine could fetch millions at auction

Photo from Sotheby's

A rare painting that dates to the Renaissance has been rediscovered after falling into obscurity — and it could fetch millions at auction.

The piece, titled “Portrait of a Young Man with a Quill and Sheet of Paper,” has been attributed to Agnolo Bronzino, a Florentine painter, by Sotheby’s, the auction house that will broker its sale in January.

The history of the once-forgotten 16th century masterpiece is filled with notable names and rife with misfortune.

Bronzino painted the piece, which some say is a self-portrait, early in his career around the year 1527, according to Sotheby’s. It features a young man at a desk pointing to an enigmatic Latin riddle, which partially reads: “The image thinks to write but in fact it does not write. It writes of its own accord, but it does not act of its own accord.”

One of the piece’s earliest owners was an adviser to Britain’s King Charles II, according to Sotheby’s, which employed specialists to research the artwork’s provenance.

The portrait was then passed down through the adviser’s descendants until 1824, when it was sold. It subsequently passed through the hands of a series of Englishmen, including the father of the first actor to play Dr. Who, Sotheby’s stated.

A German heiress of Jewish heritage, Ilse Hesselberger, purchased the painting in 1927. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, Hesselberger’s life “became increasingly complicated,” and she was eventually forced to sell her assets, including the prized Bronzino, according to Sotheby’s.

Hesselberger was later offered passage out of Germany in exchange for a contribution toward the construction of a concentration camp, which she paid. But she was deceived and instead put on a train to a concentration camp in Lithuania, where she was killed, Sotheby’s said.

The Bronzino portrait subsequently fell into the hands of a string of German dealers and was eventually procured by the government through Adolf Hitler’s interior designer. Later on, the Nazis relocated the masterpiece to a salt mine in Austria along with thousands of other priceless works, including pieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer, according to Atlas Obscura.

Toward the end of the war, as the Allies marched across Europe, the portrait was found and placed under the care of the Monuments Men, a group dedicated to safeguarding looted Nazi art, Sotheby’s said.

Following the war, the painting hung in government offices before becoming overlooked and misattributed.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that the painting made its way back to Hesselberger’s family. It was then sent to Sotheby’s to be examined. After thick layers of grime were removed and an expert was called in, the portrait was confirmed to be an authentic work of Bronzino, the auction house said. It estimates the portrait will sell for $3 million to 5 million.

“Discoveries of this caliber come once in a career,” Elisabeth Lobkowicz, vice president of old master paintings at Sotheby’s, said in the release.

The resurfaced painting will be auctioned in January, and its proceeds will go to a charity that helps survivors of the Holocaust, according to The New York Times.

Come January, the half-millennia-old portrait will once again change hands, further adding to its storied and sordid history.

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