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A French Family’s ‘Fake’ Painting Turned Out to Be a $850,000 Bruegel ‘Masterpiece’

Let this serve as a reminder to check the authenticity of your artwork.

"The Village Lawyer" by Pieter Bruegel Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a scenario that we all wish would play out in our own lives: You think that an old family painting is relatively worthless—yet it turns out to be a precious piece of artwork created by a notable artist.

While this doesn’t happen often, it did occur recently to someone living in northern France. What had long been regarded as a fake Bruegel painting was indeed the real thing, and it just sold at auction for $850,000, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday. That news might have us all double-checking the provenance of the artwork hanging in our homes.

Back in October, Malo de Lussac went to a new client’s home to assess the various artifacts within and determine how much they would sell for at auction. Most of the visit was rather unremarkable, with furniture, china, and “interesting” yet unimportant paintings, de Lussac told the Post. But in the TV room, the Bruegel caught his eye—despite it being covered in dust and mostly hidden by a door.

The owner told him, however, that the family had long ago decided that the painting was a fake. De Lussac, luckily, went ahead and sent the painting to a Bruegel expert anyway. In December, they heard back that the painting was actually the work of Pieter Bruegel the Younger, the first-born son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the most important artists of the Flemish Renaissance.

L’Avocat du Village (The Village Lawyer) depicts Flemish peasants carrying items like a basket of eggs and flowers as a Spanish tax collector reviews his records. At 44 inches by 72 ½ inches, it’s now one of the largest known Bruegel paintings, although de Lussac said he hopes that it isn’t the last one discovered. Experts who reviewed it believe that Bruegel painted the scene sometime between 1615 and 1617, and de Lussac thinks that the former owner’s family bought it as an authentic piece by the artist, although that provenance became lost over the years.

While some would have decided to keep the painting after learning of its illustrious history, the former owner still went ahead with selling it at auction, where someone scooped it up for the whopping $850,000. Hopefully that family will make sure to tell its younger generations about the artwork’s true creator, lest this whole scenario play out again in the future.

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