- Associated Press - Thursday, September 23, 2010

MADRID (AP) - An unidentified painting brought to Spain about 400 years ago has turned out to be a previously unknown masterpiece by 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the culture minister said Thursday.

Angeles Gonzalez Sinde said experts at Madrid’s Prado National Art Museum have positively identified the painting, “The Wine of St. Martin’s Day,” and are negotiating to buy it from its current owners.

“The discovery of the painting is fantastic news for the history of art,” Prado director Miguel Zugaza said.

The tempera on linen painting measuring is dated between 1565 and 1568. It depicts a crowd of about 100 people scrambling madly to get a sample of the year’s first vintage from a barrel on St. Martin’s feast day.

The scene is replete with peasant women and children, drunks, blind people, beggars and thieves. On the outskirts are figures fighting with each other and others collapsed on the ground.

“Discovery of a Bruegel is an exceptional event and not something that is likely to be repeated,” Gonzalez Sinde said.

The Prado has just one other Bruegel the Elder painting, “The Triumph of Death.” The museum said that prior to the latest find there were just 40 signed Bruegels in existence.

Gonzalez Sinde declined to say how much has been offered, but said she was confident the painting would stay in Spain and form part of the Prado’s collection.

Spain’s El Pais newspaper said the museum was prepared to pay about euro7 million ($9.33 million), but that the painting could fetch as much as euro25 million if sold in the private sector.

The minister said the owners had indicated they would prefer it went to a national museum rather than into private hands.

Prior knowledge of the painting’s image was known from an ancient engraving, but the work itself “had been taken for lost,” Zugaza said.

The painting was brought to Spain from Italy by the ninth Duke of Medinaceli in the 17th century and remained in the family’s hands up until recently, he said. Its current owners were private collectors who did not want to be named, he added.

Zugaza said the collectors did not know it was a Bruegel until they set about trying to sell it last year. Sotheby’s of Madrid then asked the Prado to study the much-deteriorated work and investigations gradually brought to light that it was a Bruegel.

“All the top experts in Flemish painting and in Bruegel were invited to view the work and they were unanimous in declaring it a work of the master,” Zugaza said.

Confirmation came on Sept. 6 when cleaning work revealed Bruegel’s signature.