Rubens Painting Sells for Pounds 49.5m; Competitive Bidding: 17th Century 'Unknown' Canvas Fetches Record Price

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Byline: Caroline Gammell

An unknown Rubens painting last night smashed the record for the most expensive painting ever bought, or sold, in sterling at an auction.

The Massacre of the Innocents, painted between 1609 and 1611, was sold for pounds 49,506,650.

It was expected to reach between pounds 4 to pounds 6 million but was bought for the record-breaking price by a private collector in the auction room.

The painting depicts the moment when King Herod ordered the slaughter of all newborn boys to get rid of the Messiah.

The painting and its 17th century Antwerp surrounding wooden panel are still in near perfect condition.

Last night's purchase beats the sale of Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gachet which went under the hammer at Christie's in New York for pounds 44,378,696.

The Massacre of the Innocents was only properly identified a few weeks ago by Sotheby's Senior Old Masters Painting Specialist George Gordon.

Until then, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) work had been incorrectly attributed to the more minor artist Jan van den Hoecke.

Mr Gordon said: 'The chance to see this work is extremely exciting for collectors and scholars alike.

'For such a work of genius by such a great painter to languish under a false attribution to a minor artist for so long is surely an injustice, but in the end quality will out.'

It was sold exactly 22 years after a similarly important piece Samson and Delilah reached pounds 2.53 million at the National Gallery in London in 1980.

The painting passed to various collectors but in an anonymous inventory in 1780, it was attributed to van den Hoecke, who worked in Vienna, painting in the style of Rubens and Van Dyck.

A photograph of the work was recently taken to Sotheby's in Amsterdam and the painting was brought to London for closer inspection, before being verified.

More than 500 people crowded into the packed sale room and the bidding began at pounds 3 million.

A Sotheby's spokeswoman said: 'It was completely wonderful. The bidding started at pounds 3 million, jumped to pounds 3.2 million, then pounds 3.8 million.

'Then somebody shouted out pounds 6 million and it went up in millions from then on.'

She said there were four or five buyers who seemed determined to secure the work of art.

The spokeswoman continued: 'It was completely the most wonderful thing to be in that room.

'It was very exciting. Staff who have worked here for 30 years said they had never seen anything so wonderful.

'It was tense, but there were other people who were there for other things. The actual buyer was standing in the room with his mobile phone to his ear.

Last night's painting sold for pounds 49,506,650 including premium which translates into $76,730,700.

Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gachet was sold at Christie's in New York in 1990 for pounds 49,005,059 million including premium. …