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'Worthless' painting sells for £6.5million after artist is revealed as an 18th century French master


‘Worthless’ painting sells for £6.5million after it is identified as a work by 18th century French master

  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Philosopher Reading was discovered hanging in a flat
  • Its owners had passed it down through generations but considered it worthless
  • On Saturday, it sold for £6.5million at auction, the third-highest sale for the artist
  • Painted around 1768, the image shows an elderly man bent over a pile of books

A painting long-considered ‘insignificant’ by its owner has sold at auction for €7,686,000 (£6.5million) after it was identified as being the work of an 18th-century French master.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted Philosopher Reading around 1768, and in January, the depiction of a wispy haired man bent over a pile of books was discovered caked in dust in a flat in northern France.

Auctioneer Antoine Petit made the find in the flat in the Marne region, where the painting had long hung on the wall, passed down through generations but assumed to be worthless.  

Petit had been asked to estimate the value of the flat’s contents for inheritance purposes and noticed the painting while going about his work.

No one had mentioned it to him as a piece of potential interest or value, but he was curious. 

‘I nevertheless decided to take it down to examine it and my impression was confirmed when I had it in my hands,’ said the auctioneer.

‘The painter’s touch was manifestly expert, his brush strokes incredibly frank.’

On the back of the ovular wooden frame, the word Fragonard could just about be made out. 

A painting long-considered 'insignificant' by its owner has sold at auction for ¿7,686,000 (£6.5million) after it was identified as being the work of an 18th-century French master

A painting long-considered ‘insignificant’ by its owner has sold at auction for €7,686,000 (£6.5million) after it was identified as being the work of an 18th-century French master

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, painted Philosopher Reading around 1768, and in January, the depiction of a wispy haired man bent over a pile of books was discovered caked in dust in a flat in northern France. Pictured: Fragonard in a self-portrait

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, painted Philosopher Reading around 1768, and in January, the depiction of a wispy haired man bent over a pile of books was discovered caked in dust in a flat in northern France. Pictured: Fragonard in a self-portrait

Experts confirmed the painting was indeed by Fragonard and identified it as Philosopher Reading.

There had been no known trace of the work since it was last auctioned in 1796. The Art Newspaper reported that at one point, the painting had been owned by Pierre Adolph Hall, a miniaturist and friend of Fragonard.

Stéphane Pinta, one the experts who authenticated the work, told AFP news agency that the artist was aged around 40 and at the height of his powers when Philosopher Reading was painted.  

‘The paint seems to be moulded or sculpted, at times even applied directly with a finger. Freed from the extreme minutia of the Rococo style, his brush strokes are quick, precise and incredibly expressive,’ he said.    

While best known for his erotic and romantic style, Fragonard also painted some 10 works showing older men in the style of the Dutch master Rembrandt, of which Philosopher Reading is one.

Until it was discovered and identified in January, there had been no known trace of the work since it was last auctioned in 1796

Until it was discovered and identified in January, there had been no known trace of the work since it was last auctioned in 1796

It went under the hammer once again at Encheres-Champagne auctioneers in Épernay on Saturday with an estimate of €1.5 million to €2 million (£859,025 to £1,717,870.00).

Bidding escalated with a London gallery owner vying with a French private collector and an American one. 

Petit did not reveal who made the winning bid, the third-highest price ever paid for a Fragonard. 

The record was set in 2013 at Bonham’s London, where one of Fragonard’s fantasy portraits, The Portrait of François-Henri d’Harcourt, sold for £17.1million.

Pictured: A statue of Fragonard in his hometown of Grasse, a town on the French Riviera

Pictured: A statue of Fragonard in his hometown of Grasse, a town on the French Riviera



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