Revealed: the illustrious past of a mystery portrait | Art

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When Sotheby’s sold a 17th-century portrait miniature last year, it was unable to identify its black sitter, cataloging him only as “a North African, possibly an Abyssinian”. When Christie’s sold it some 20 years earlier, it too had failed to put a name to a face. Now a British art expert has found the model to be a pretender to the Ethiopian throne.

Philip Mould, co-presenter of the BBC show False or Fortune?proved that it represents Zaga Christ, who died tragically young, after having marked the royal courts of France and Italy.

The oval portrait is only 57mm high, but is an object of great historical significance, he said: “It is the oldest known European portrait miniature to depict a model black. It represents an all too rare moment in early modern European history – a moment when an African model is treated by an artist in exactly the same way as a European. It is a rediscovery, a revelation.

It was painted in 1635 by Giovanna Garzoni, one of the most famous Italian female painters of the 17th century.

Zaga Christ rode a camel out of the desert, traveling to France and Italy, where he was welcomed by Cardinal de Richelieu and the Pope. Although some doubted his claim to be the son of the slain Emperor Jacob of Ethiopia, a contemporary wrote: “When Zaga Christ appeared among other princes, the beauties of his mind and body were such that he eclipsed them all.”

He fell in love with a Franciscan nun, Caterina Massimi. Their letters, written in the 1630s in their own blood, were discovered after he died in France of pleurisy at the age of 28.

The identity of the miniature had been forgotten when it came up for auction, Mr Mold said: “The writing on the back is how we cracked it. In delicious deception, in deference to her Ethiopian subject, the artist – a rare female artist of the time – wrote her name in Ethiopian.

Last December, Sotheby’s estimated the miniature would fetch between £5,000 and £8,000. The auctioneer described it as a “remarkable” portrait, the identity of the sitter of which is “at present unknown, but the richness of his clothing may indicate that he held office at court”.

Mold sensed his potential, raising the bid to around £55,000. Such is its museum significance that it will be priced at £250,000 when it is first exhibited with its new identity at the Masterpiece London art fair, which opens on June 27.

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