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Masterpiece found in plastic bag sells for £17.5m

CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2024 Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The painting depicts Joseph, Mary and Jesus stopping to rest while travelling.

A painting described as a masterpiece which was found in a plastic bag after being stolen has sold for £17.6m at auction.

Rest On The Flight Into Egypt, painted by Venetian master Titian when he was aged just 20 in 1510, was sold by London auction house Christie’s.

The work was stolen from the drawing room of stately home Longleat in Wiltshire in 1995, but was found seven years later without its frame in a plastic carrier bag in London.

Its sale sets a new world auction record for the artist, auctioneers said.

‘Unique rarity’

Lord Bath, who succeeded his father as the Marquess of Bath in 2020, inheriting the Longleat estate, said the painting had an “extraordinary history”.

Speaking ahead of the sale, he said: “We have a considerable long-term investment strategy at Longleat and have decided to sell this asset to further this agenda at a time when the market for paintings of such unique rarity is so strong.”

The picture, which depicts Mary cradling Jesus as Joseph looks on, is 2ft (60cm) wide and painted on a wooden panel.

It has had many owners over the years, including Austrian Emperor Joseph II, before being hung at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna.

French troops looted the painting in 1809 for the Napoleon Museum, which was assembled by the Bonaparte family.

It was later owned by a Scottish landowner before being bought by the fourth Marquess of Bath in 1878 at a Christie’s auction.

After being stolen in 1995, it was recovered in 2002 by former Scotland Yard detective Charles Hill after a £100,000 reward was offered for information.

Mr Hill is also credited with helping to recover Edvard Munch’s The Scream after it was stolen in 1994, as well as other famous artworks.

‘Truly outstanding example’

Speaking ahead of the auction, Andrew Fletcher, Christie’s global head of the Old Masters Department, said it was the most important work by Titian to come to the auction market “in more than a generation”.

He added that the picture was “a truly outstanding example of the artist’s pioneering approach to both the use of colour and the representation of the human form in the natural world”.

He said the piece secured Titian’s status as “one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art”.

The painting had had an auction estimate of £15m-£20m. –