A rare, rediscovered sketch by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) sold for £1.11 million on 31 March at an auction house in Lille, France. Auctioneer Patrick Deguines of Lille Mercier said, 'This is the sketch that served as a model for one of the monumental paintings intended for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp,' which later became the Church Saint Charles Borromeo.

St. Margaret, Peter Paul Rubens. 1620, oil on oak wood panel. St. Margaret, Peter Paul Rubens. 1620, oil on oak wood panel.

Created in 1620, the oil on wood panel study depicts St. Margaret in a red and white dress, holding a cross in her hand with a dragon crouched to her right and a lamb on her left. The work (33 x 46 cm) inspired one of the 39 paintings which Rubens was commissioned to paint for the Jesuit church, which was erected as one of the largest in Flanders.

The creation of the 39 large-scale paintings (4 x 3 metres) required the assistance of Rubens' entire studio, which at the time included Anthony van Dyck. But the preparatory oil sketches were only signed by the master himself, who subsequently refused to sell them as they were to be kept as a record of his work. Unfortunately, in 1718, a fire ravaged the ceilings of the church and destroyed all the paintings. However, before that had happened, two artists had drawn sketches of all the paintings so this work could be compared to the painting that it was a study for.

Plate of the ceilings of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp, n28: Sainte-Marguerite; standing in the center holding a dragon on a leash, a lamb on the right, oval composition, after Peter Paul Rubens, image © The Trustees of the British Museum Plate of the ceilings of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp, n28: Sainte-Marguerite; standing in the center holding a dragon on a leash, a lamb on the right, oval composition, after Peter Paul Rubens, image © The Trustees of the British Museum

A total of 33 sketches were known to experts, the majority of which were kept in museums. The remaining six disappeared over the centuries, including the sketch of St. Margaret. A family in Lille had been in possession of the work for decades without knowing its value and recently discovered it in their attic.

The sketch of St. Margaret at Lille Mercier. Image © MAXPPP The sketch of St. Margaret at Lille Mercier. Image © MAXPPP

No work by Rubens of such importance has been on French soil for 20 years. With an estimate of £170,000-250,000, the sketch quickly garnered offers, by phone and in the room at Lille Mercier, a local auction house. A Belgian collector, who remains anonymous, pledged the winning bid of £1.1 million for the work.

Earlier this year in January, a large nude study by the Flemish master achieved £6.24 million at Sotheby's in New York.

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