Lucas Cranach I (Kronach 1472-1553 Weimar), Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554). Sold for $7,737,500 on 19 April 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘My highlight of 2018’ – Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony by Lucas Cranach

François de Poortere, Head of Old Masters, and Monica Dugot, International Director of Restitution, reflect on the sale of this magnificent German Renaissance portrait, which was seized by Nazi agents during the Second World War

For almost 80 years this 16th-century portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder was presumed lost, or worse, destroyed. During the Second World War it had been forcibly removed by Nazi agents from the collection of the German-born banker and art collector, Friedrich “Fritz” Gutmann.

Fritz and his wife Louise were murdered in concentration camps before the end of the war, but their grandson, Simon Goodman, has spent his life trying to track down their missing works of art. Following an approach by persons in possession of the work, who acknowledged the losses suffered by the family, Christie’s facilitated its return to Goodman. 

‘It was enormously satisfying for us to be able to reunite this marvellous painting with its rightful owners,’ says François de Poortere, International Director and Head of Old Masters at Christie’s. ‘To have been able to do so after such a long time — eight decades — demonstrates that our ongoing efforts in restitution are a vital element of Christie’s engagement with the art world.’ 

After its return, Simon Goodman confessed, ‘Among those pieces still missing from my grandfather Fritz Gutmann’s collection, this was the piece I was the most doubtful of ever recovering.’

The painting, dating to the 1530s, depicts a magnificently attired John Frederick I (1503-1554), a German Elector of Saxony. On his head is a feathered bonnet with gold and pearl accessories, and around his shoulders he wears a slashed silk doublet and sumptuous velvet cloak. Gold collars and lengths of gold chain complete his raiment, along with a gold pomander, shaped like a dolphin, designed to mask unpleasant aromas. (See Jonquil O’Reilly’s fascinating take on this painting and power dressing in the 16th century, here.)

‘The quality and rarity of the work, together with the restitution story, generated tremendous interest’ — François de Poortere

‘When the work came up for sale in April we had nine bidders for it,’ recalls de Poortere. ‘There were Old Masters collectors of course, but also some 20th-century art clients as well as buyers from Asia. Clearly the combination of the quality and rarity of the work — by one of the greatest Old Master painters — together with the restitution story, had generated tremendous interest.’ 

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This was, after all, a painting that had spent the early part of the 20th century in Fritz Gutmann’s red damask-lined men’s smoking-room, alongside other German Renaissance works by the likes of Hans Baldung-GrienHans Burgkmair, Jakob Elsner and Bernhard Strigel, and the latter half — known only from black and white photographs — listed on the Monuments Men Foundation’s list of most wanted works of art. The painting eventually realised more than seven times its low estimate, selling for $7,737,500, including buyer’s premium.

After the sale Monica Dugot, International Director of Restitution at Christie’s, said, ‘We hope that the reappearance of this painting demonstrates that with goodwill, perseverance and collaboration, amicable and fair solutions can be found in resolving complex restitution cases and losses due to Nazi persecution, even after so many years.’