Long-Lost Velázquez Portrait of Pope’s Mistress Set to Fetch £2m at Sotheby’s Old Masters Sale

A newly discovered painting of Olimpia Pamphilj by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) will be offered on 3 July at Sotheby’s, valued at £2m-3m (US$2.6m-3.9m). Thought to be lost for three centuries, the painting offers us insight into one of the most powerful women in 17th-century Rome.

Created in 1650 by Diego Velázquez, one of the most important painters of the Spanish Golden Age, the portrait was last recorded in 1724 before it subsequently disappeared without a trace. The whereabouts of the painting remained to be a mystery until it was brought to Sotheby’s Amsterdam office, where specialists began a process of research and discovery which ultimately led to the authentication of the painting as the long-lost original by Velázquez.

Depicted in the painting is Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, sister-in-law and reputedly lover to Pope Innocent X, who controlled all aspects of Vatican life. The sitter is not only one of the most ambitious, notorious, domineering women of her time, but also arguably among Rome’s earliest feminists.

The portrait of Olimpia belongs to a moment during which Velázquez produced some of his most celebrated masterpieces, including the Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650). The painting depicts a stout, strong-jowled woman, the only lady to be selected to be painted by Velázquez during his second visit to Rome in 1649-50.  

Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (19650)

Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj was born into a noble family in Viterbo in 1591. When she was fifteen, she married the richest young man in town and was widowed three years later with a magnificent fortune to inherit. 21-year-old Olimpia then married 51-year-old Pamphilio Pamphilj, the elder brother of Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili, the future Pope Innocent X. The Pope’s sister-in-law and his reputed lover, Olimpia Pamphilj was one of the most influential figures at the papal court during her brother-in-law’s tenure.

Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj was a baroque rock star to the women of her time. They could not believe that a female from modest beginnings had risen to such heights of power in a man’s world. Olimpia was also known for her kindness to oppressed women, giving generously to nuns and protecting prostitutes.

Allesandro Algardi's Bust of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, 1646-47

The painting is one of the only handful of works by the great Spanish master remaining in private hands and it will be offered at Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening Sale in London on 3 July.

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1591–1657)

Lot no.: 28
Size: 77.4 x 61cm

  • Commissioned by or for the sitter, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1591 - 1657), on 11th July 1650;
  • Thence by descent to her grandson Cardinal Camillo Massimi (1620–1677), listed in his posthumous inventory, dated Rome 11 October 1677, as hanging on the left-hand wall of his gallery, under no. 106: ‘Diego Velasco’;
  • Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro, 7th Marqués del Carpio, Duque de Montoro, Conde-Duque de Olivares, Marqués de Eliche (1629 – 1687), Rome and Naples, by whom purchased in 1678 from the estate of the above for ‘20 y 20 escudos’; and listed in his inventory dated Rome 7 September 1682 – 1 January 1683, under no. 429, as ‘Ritratto di Donna Olimpia Panfilia con velo nero in testa’ as by ‘Diego Velasco’ with a value of 50 scudi; and in his posthumous inventory dated Naples 1687, also under no. 429;
  • Don Eugenio de los Rios, Caballero de Santiago and Mayordomo Mayor to the late Marqués del Carpio, in 1688, together with Velázquez’s portrait of Camillo Massimi (as ‘dos retratos de Velazquez de 3 x 2½ palmos’), perhaps in lieu of debt from the late Marqués;
  • Sig. Cesare Barbaro, Naples, to whom passed on 8 June 1692 from Don Eugenio de los Rios, together with the portrait of Cardinal Massimi (as ‘dos retratros de Velazquez de 3 x 2½ palmos’);
  • Cardinal Pompeo Aldrovandi (1668–1752), Bologna and Rome, by 1724 (as ‘Diego Valaschi, Ritratto di D.a Olimpia Pamphili’ and ‘Ritratto di Mons.r Massimi’);
  • Anonymous sale, The Hague, Venduhuis der Notarissen, 22 April 1986, lot 205 (as Dutch school, c. 1650 [‘Hollandse School, ca. 1650’]);
  • Where purchased by a private collector;
  • By whom bequeathed to the present owner.

Estimate: £2,000,000-3,000,000

Auction details
Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Old Masters Evening Sale
Date: 3 July 2019