Modern-Day Mystery: Where is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man?

One of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century has to do with a painting made in the 16th. Specifically a Raphael painting often called Portrait of a Young Man, sometimes considered to be a self-portrait. Only black-and-white photographs exist; anytime you see it with colour, the pigmentation has been artificially added.

A photograph of Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man

Painted by Raphael in 1513, the masterwork was purchased in Italy by a prince of the Polish Czartoryski family in 1798 and brought to Paris for display; the prince’s son eventually transported it to Poland in 1871. The painting hung in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow (currently closed for renovations) until 1939, when the Nazis were on the brink of invading Poland. The Czartoryski  family patriarch hid the piece, along with paintings by da Vinci and Rembrandt, but they were discovered by the Gestapo and sent to Germany to become part of Hitler’s personal collection. A Hitler appointee brought the paintings back to his own Polish residence at the end of the war, which is when the Raphael was last seen. (For an extremely detailed timeline of the painting’s movements, click here, and for a short video on the work, watch here.)

In the aftermath of the war, representatives of the Allies Commission for the Retrieval of Works of Arts (also known as the Monuments Men, which George Clooney made into a movie in 2014) recovered the da Vinci as well as hundreds of other priceless pieces, but never Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, and its whereabouts remain an enigma to this day.

In 2012, art fans everywhere got their hopes up when it was revealed the painting had been found, hidden in a bank vault for the past six decades. Alas, the news report was a hoax (the original “fake news”?).

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Possible Raphael painting found in a Scottish manor

Other scholars posit that we don’t need to worry quite so much about this lost painting as it may never have even by created by Raphael but perhaps by one of his students. Of course, we’ll never know until it is recovered and analyzed by experts. Even then, forgery is a possibility. (Learn how experts detect forged paintings.)

Several experts estimate it would be worth more than $100 million if found and authenticated as a genuine Raphael. It is in illustrious company, with works by Van Gogh, Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Cezanne also on the missing list.

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Possible sketch by Raphael of the Mona Lisa

It would not be completely outlandish for the painting to pop up. After all, a lost Raphael may have been found in 2016 in an old Scottish manor worthy of Outlander. Authentication efforts are still being conducted, according to Haddo House. Similarly, in 2014, a possible second version of the Madonna of Foligno was revealed in Spain. Some think Raphael made either a study for or a copy of his original, while skeptics believe it to be a replication of Raphael’s original by another artist. It’s not unheard of for artists to reproduce each other’s works, such as Raphael’s sketch of what may be the Mona Lisa.

More definitively, two Raphaels were uncovered in the Vatican in 2017. This attribution is more confident given the paintings were found during restoration of rooms Raphael actually painted in.

Part of a Raphael fresco found in the Vatican

In The Monuments Men movie, the Raphael is shown being burned. That would be a heartbreaking ending for this missing masterpiece. My own hope is that it is tucked away in the attic of an old castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, soon to be resurrected.

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This plaque marks a place where the doctor Norman Bethune briefly lived on Robert Street south of Harbord near the University of Toronto. A noted Communist who was a front-line surgeon during both the Spanish Civil War and in China, Dr. Bethune was a medical innovator who pioneered transfusing blood on the battlefield. A statue of the man can also be found on the University of Toronto campus near College and Queen’s Park. In my novel Ciao Bella, his activism is the catalyst for the heroine traveling to Europe on the brink of World War II.

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