A Twice-Looted Titian Masterpiece Once Discovered at a Bus Stop Hits the Auction Block

The painting, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” could sell for as much as $30 million

Titian's The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,
Titian, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1508 Christie's Images LTD. 2024

A coveted Titian painting that was stolen twice and discovered in a plastic bag at a bus stop in the 1990s could fetch over $30 million at Christie’s London this July.

The painting, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, takes inspiration from the biblical story in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt after Joseph dreams that Herod, the King of Judea, plans to kill the newborn Christ. The piece depicts Joseph and the Virgin Mary with young Jesus resting in the woods on their journey.

“Her feet planted firmly on the ground, the Madonna wraps Jesus in a protective embrace at the center of the canvas,” Christie’s details in a statement. “The pair are shown in suspended animation, in an intimate moment of tenderness between mother and son.”

Christie's estimates the circa 1508-1509 painting will sell from of £15 million and £25 million (about $19 million to $32 million).

“This is the most important work by Titian to come to the auction market in more than a generation and one of the very few masterpieces by the artist remaining in private hands,” says Andrew Fletcher, a Christie’s representative in a press statement.

Fletcher calls Titian “one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art.” The Italian master likely created the artwork, which measures at just 18.25 inches by 24.75 inches, on a wooden panel in his late teens. According to Christie’s, Titian had an “unprecedented access to a range of imported pigments” and he and other Venetian painters “gained renown for the vibrancy and brilliance of their colors.”

Christie’s notes that historians do not know who commissioned the painting and the first written record of the piece dates back to the early 17th century. According to the document, it was in the collection of a Venetian spice merchant named Bartolomeo della Nave.

Throughout the centuries various European nobles and royalty have owned The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, and looters have lifted the piece on two separate occasions nearly 200 years apart.

Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria bought the painting in the 1650s and brought it to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. The piece stayed there until 1809, when Napoleonic troops invaded the city and took the painting back to Paris.

In 1878, John Alexander Thynne, the 4th Marquess of Bath, acquired the artwork and placed it at its current home at Longleat House in Wiltshire. During a brief incident in 1995, someone stole the painting from the house; renowned art detective Charles Hill recovered the piece at a bus stop in south-west London in a plastic bag after receiving a tip.

The Titian painting will be up for auction as part of Christie’s Art Old Masters Part I sale on July 2.

“This is a painting, then, that has been coveted by aristocrats, archdukes and emperors alike: prized for its vividly coloured scene of familial affection within the natural world,” says Christies in the statement. “Like its subjects, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt has been on a long and eventful journey—a journey that’s far from over.”

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