This painting was sold in 2016 at Weschler’s in Washington. It was attributed to the “studio of” Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and fetched $27,000. Last month, it sold for more than $500,000 at Sotheby’s in London, after it had been cleaned and attributed to the Old Master artist. (Terence D. McArdle/Weschler’s Auctioneers & Appraisers)
Columnist

About 400 years ago, a woman in Flanders had her picture painted. We don’t know her name — “An Old Woman” is how art experts would come to refer to her — but we know what she looked like. In the painting, her square, ruddy face floats in the shadows. She stares out with a severe expression.

Who painted her?

“I thought I was being bold by attributing it to ‘studio of’ ” Sir Peter Paul Rubens, said Danielle Isaacs, fine art specialist at Weschler’s, the venerable local auction house that recently moved from Washington to Rockville, Md. At a Weschler’s auction in March 2016, “Portrait of an Old Woman” was Lot 184.

However much you might pay for a painting from the studio of Rubens, it’s not as much as you’d pay for a painting by Rubens himself. Works by the Flemish master have sold for millions of dollars.

Lot 184 had a Rubens vibe about it, but Danielle was reluctant to pin it to the master.

“One of the issues with Rubens is that (a) his work is faked a lot, and (b) he had an enormous studio, with a lot of apprentices,” she said.

By doing research at the National Gallery of Art’s library, Danielle was able to find the first mention of the painting — sold in 1797 in Paris — and information on its most recent sale, which was in 1923. She felt secure in attributing the painting to the “studio of” Rubens, which put it closer to the master than “follower of” or “in the manner of” would have.

Weschler’s estimated the value of the 20-by-16-inch painting at $10,000 to $15,000. It did rather well, selling for nearly twice the high-end figure: $27,000.

For most of us, that would be a lot of money. But it’s nowhere near what the same painting sold for last month at Sotheby’s in London: 416,750 pounds, nearly $550,000.

What happened?

“People are constantly bringing in Rubens and van Dycks to us which turn out not to be Rubens and van Dycks,” said George Gordon , co-chairman of Old Master paintings and drawings at Sotheby’s. “There’s a lot of optimism out there.”

Usually that optimism is misplaced. In this case, it wasn’t.

“There was a real enthusiasm about this painting,” George said. “We thought it had all the qualities that you expect in a Rubens oil sketch of this particular date.”

Some background: If Rubens saw a face he liked, he painted it. It became a reference for later paintings. That old woman’s face is in a known Rubens painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and in another in a Lichtenstein museum.

“Finding connections between oil sketches and finished paintings doesn’t necessarily mean the work is by the master,” George said. But it adds to the evidence. So does what the painting is on: three wooden panels, joined, a practice Rubens was known to employ.

The painting was brought to the Rubenianum in Antwerp, Belgium, where it was studied by experts. The final verdict? It’s a Rubens.

“There’s no question to me that that attribution is correct,” said Arthur Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Arthur figures that whoever bought the painting at Weschler’s — and neither that person nor the seller wished to speak with me — took a gamble. It must have appeared to them like a Rubens that had been overpainted.

Arthur suspects that some time in the painting’s 400-year history, someone wanted to make it look more like a finished work and had a shapeless black jacket daubed in. They probably thought a finished painting was more likely to find a buyer than an unfinished painting.

The painting was cleaned and conserved before it arrived at Sotheby’s. That left pretty much just the face, which was all Rubens would have been interested in: a stock character for future works.

“Somebody did some very careful research and took a chance that there was overpaint,” Arthur said.

The moral: A seemingly unfinished painting by Rubens is worth more than a “finished” work by an anonymous artist.

I asked George if it was rare that a “new” Rubens would surface. Not really, he said.

“It does happen,” he said. “Rubens and indeed van Dyck oil sketches do turn up fairly often.”

Well, how come I can never seem to find one?

The gavel falls

In other auction news, the long-running legal battle between the daughter of the late D.C. art collector Robert Fastov and the Sloans & Kenyon auction house is over.

A portion of Fastov’s massive art collection was sold by the Chevy Chase, Md., auction house in 2013. Fastov never cashed checks totaling $426,038.25 — and he never picked up the unsold artwork.

After Fastov died in August 2014, his daughter, Alexandra, requested that the checks be reissued. Sloans owner Stephanie Kenyon refused, saying the money had gone toward storage of the uncollected works. The two sides sued each other, and in June a Montgomery County judge ruled in favor of Alexandra Fastov.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.