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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Angela Giuffrida in Rome

Storied Titian painting found at London bus stop after theft goes to auction

Detail from Titian’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1508).
Detail from Titian’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1508). Photograph: Christie's

A highly coveted painting by the Renaissance master Titian that was stolen in 1809 then again in 1995 – after which it was discovered in a plastic bag at a London bus stop – is being put up for auction in July.

The Venetian painter is believed to have created Rest on the Flight into Egypt in 1508 when he was barely 20. Painted on a 2ft wide wooden panel, the painting depicts the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus as an infant with Joseph looking on.

It was first documented in the collection of a Venetian spice merchant in the early 17th century and over the ensuing centuries has been owned by various aristocrats, emperors and archdukes across Europe.

It was bought by the 4th Marquess of Bath at auction from Christie’s in 1878, and is now being sold by the same auction house in London on 2 July on behalf of the last marquess. It is expected to fetch between £15m and £25m.

The painting has been stolen twice over its history – first in 1809 from Belvedere Palace in Vienna by Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops and then in the mid-1990s when it was looted from Longleat House, the seat of the Marquesses of Bath, in Wiltshire.

An article on the Christie’s website said the painting was “prized for its vividly coloured scene of familial affection within the natural world”, and that, “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.”

The most colourful part of that journey so far was perhaps when the painting was taken from the first-floor drawing room of the Longleat stately home in 1995. After a seven-year hunt, the painting, valued at more than £5m at the time, was found in a plastic shopping bag at a bus stop in Richmond by Charles Hill, a former chief of Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit.

Hill, who died in 2021, said he had been led to the spot by a man he described as a cross between Arthur Daley and Lovejoy, the rogue characters of two TV series that ran in the 1980s and 1990s, in return for a £100,000 reward. Hill was also known for helping to find Edvard Munch’s 1893 version of The Scream after it was stolen from the National Museum in Oslo in 1994.

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