Rubens' depiction of Salome and John the Baptist Beheaded fetches US$26.9m

There is a rule of 3Ds in the art market: death, divorce and debt – the reasons why artworks are released to the market. At the beginning of 2023, due to divorce, a rare ensemble of old masters' works has come across the auction block. 

Recently, ten Baroque paintings from the Fisch Davidson Collection – a collection named after the surnames of the divorced couple, real estate developer Mark Fisch and former New Jersey judge Rachel Davidson – has been put up for sale at Sotheby's New York, where they were all sold and brought in a sale total of nearly US$49.6 million.

Among them was a seldom-seen oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, which sold for US$26.9 million to become the master's third-most expensive painting ever sold at auctions. 

Mark Fisch (left), Rachel Davidson (right) and their daughter

Lot 5 | Sir Peter Paul Rubens | Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, Oil on oak panel
Siegen 1577 - 1640 Antwerp
94 x 101.8 cm

  • Spanish Royal collection, Alcázar de Madrid, Galeria del Mediodia, recorded between 1666 and 1700 (see note)
  • Le Camus family (according to a red wax seal on the verso)
  • Possibly M. de Merval, and his sale, Paris, 9 May 1768 ("Hériodiade à qui des guerriers apportent la tête de St. Jean" [see Rooses 1888])
  • Private collector, Montargis, France
  • By whom sold, Fontainebleau, Drouot, 14 June 1987, no lot number, (as “Studio of Rubens”)
  • Where acquired by Charles Bailly
  • By whom anonymously sold, New York, Sotheby’s, 30 January 1998, lot 137 (Sold: US$5,500,000)
  • Where acquired by Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York, and Alfred Bader, Milwaukee
  • From whom acquired by Steve Wynn, Las Vegas, 1998
  • By whom sold with property holdings to MGM Grand, Las Vegas, 2000
  • From whom acquired by the present collectors, 2000

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: US$23,500,000
Sold: US$26,926,000

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Baroque: Masterpieces from the Fisch Davidson Collection
Date: 26 January 2023

The star lot was met with a lukewarm reception, attracting only one bid to be hammered at US$23 million – a bid placed by Christopher Apostle, New York Head of Old Masters, who is likely to act on behalf of the irrevocable bidder.

Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist last changed hands at auction in 1998, when it fetched US$5.5 million, setting the auction record for the artist at the time. It was later acquired by Steve Wynn, the casino mogul who founded Wynn Resorts, before becoming part of Fisch Davidson collection.

The eminent old master's auction record now stands at £49.5 million, set by The Massacre of the Innocents, which was sold at Sotheby's London in 2002 to Canadian magnate Kenneth Thomson. It was also the most expensive old master painting ever sold at auction then, a record held for 15 years until Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi fetched a stunning US$450 million in 2017. 

Ranking second on Rubens' auction record is Lot and His Daughters, which sold for £44.8 million in London in 2016.

Christopher Apostle placed the winning bid for the telephone bidder

Massacre of the Innocents | 142 x 182 cm, Sold: £49.5 million, Sotheby's London, 2002

Lot and His Daughters | 190 x 225 cm, Sold: £44.8 million, Sotheby's London, 2016

One of the greatest and most impactful artists of the Western tradition, Peter Paul Rubens is a Flemish painter highly regarded for his imaginative, exuberant masterpieces of religious and mythological subjects. 

For the present lot, the episode was taken from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. As the story goes, King Herod had divorced his legitimate partner and taken his brother's wife, Herodias. An incestuous marriage, Saint John the Baptist publicly condemned their union as unholy and against Jewish law, ended up infuriating the King. 

However enraged Herod was about the reproach, he dared not to order the Baptist's death, but rather to imprison him, fearful of John's public influence as a vital prophet. 

When Herod's birthday came, his new stepdaughter Salome performed at a banquet to delight Herod and his guests. Mesmerized by her dancing, the King promised with an oath to give her any gift she desired, up to half of his kingdom.

Salome, after consulting her mother Herodias, asked for the head of the Baptist on a platter. Though reluctant at heart, Herod did not want to violate his own words in front of the guests, and therefore beheaded John in the prison. 

Beheaded Saint John the Baptist

Salome staring at the Baptist's head on a silver platter

While the subject was part of a long-established artistic canon and had been treated by painters from the Renaissance on, Rubens managed to impress with his creativity in composition and extraordinary abilities of storytelling, bringing liveliness and theatricality to the painting.

The old maidservant, for instance, ironically pulls on the Baptist's tongue, the “offending organ,” revealing to the presumably shocked audience the reason for the Baptist's execution – his verbal admonishment against incest.

During the 19th century, Oscar Wilde turned the episode into the subject of a tragedy, a play that was later edited down to the renowned one-act opera Salome by Richard Strauss  – and its plots tells an entirely different story. 

In the opera, Salome fell madly in love with the Baptist but her strong desire for him was rejected. After demanding for the Baptist's head, she declares her love by caressing it and passionately kissing his dead lips. Horrified, Herod commanded the death of Salome as well.