Turns out, the family joke was a hidden masterpiece, a genuine work of Pieter Bruegel the Younger, a 17th-century Flemish artist. Painted more than 400 years ago, “L’Avocat du village” — or “the Village Lawyer” — sold last week at auction in Paris for the equivalent of about $850,000 — the result of a discovery that de Lussac described as one of the most thrilling of his career.
“I was very, very surprised,” de Lussac said.
His coup started out as a workaday assignment: travel from Paris to a client’s home in northern France to estimate how much their artwork and artifacts would sell for at auction. Because of the home’s size, he’d blocked out the entire day to accomplish the job.
For the first hour, everything went as expected. After a half-hour of chatting and building a rapport with the owner over coffee, they started touring the house by surveying the living room. They then moved to the kitchen. Everything fell within de Lussac’s expectations: furniture, china, some “interesting” but relatively unimportant paintings.
They moved on to a TV room, where his client directed his attention to some 19th-century paintings they thought would be of the most interest, an inclination backed up by their prominent placement in the room.
Then, de Lussac spotted part of a painting covered in dust and mostly obscured by a door. He shut it to get a look at the entire work. The brushstrokes, the colors, the canvas material — it all rang true with de Lussac’s knowledge of Bruegel the Younger. Born in Brussels around 1564, Bruegel was the eldest son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the most prominent artists of the Flemish Renaissance in Flanders, a Dutch-speaking region of what is now Belgium.
At roughly 44 inches by 72½ inches, the oil painting depicts a mishmash of Flemish peasants toting their wares — baskets of eggs and flowers, a bird strung up by its feet — before a Spanish tax collector coolly reviewing his records.
“My heart was beating so hard,” de Lussac said.
The owners broke the bad news: The painting had long been regarded as a knockoff by the family. Their forebears had purchased it in the late 1800s, and it spent the next century bouncing to different houses as younger generations inherited the work. Over the years, the painting had turned into a punchline.
But acting on his hunch, de Lussac pressed the current owner. Everything he observed jibed with what he knew of Bruegel the Younger, who had painted several works depicting the same scene of a Spanish official collecting taxes from Flemish peasants.
The owners were skeptical but willing to let de Lussac send the painting to a Bruegel expert in Germany. In December, they got word: It was genuine.
Experts believe Bruegel painted it between 1615 and 1617, de Lussac said. He that he believes the original buyer purchased it as a genuine Bruegel and that knowledge of its authenticity was lost to time.
De Lussac said he was happy to discover a painting of such importance and to resurrect its authenticity for its owners. Personally, he was thrilled to discover one of the largest known Bruegel paintings, and “I hope,” he said, “it’s not the last one.”