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An unrecorded portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) attributed to Mason Chamberlin, estimated at $50,000-$80,000 at Freeman’s Hindman.

Previously unrecorded portrait of Benjamin Franklin heads to Freeman’s Hindman April 30

PHILADELPHIA — A previously unrecorded portrait of Benjamin Franklin will appear at Freeman’s Hindman with an estimate of $50,000-$80,000 this month. The new discovery, which bears striking similarities to the well-known portrait of the Founding Father by Mason Chamberlin in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was recently found in Italy.

Freeman’s Hindman date its picture to circa 1778, 16 years after the portrait in the PMA was commissioned by the Virginia landowner Colonel Philip Ludwell III. In 1762, Chamberlin (1727-87) had painted his subject from life in London, showing Franklin seated in his study surrounded by three of his experiments. Franklin was delighted with the results and distributed copies of the mezzotint (later made by the engraver Edward Fisher) to his friends for the next 10 years.

This later work, offered for sale on Tuesday, April 30 as part of an auction of American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts, shares many of the same characteristics. Although Franklin is depicted as an older gentleman, he is seated in the same chair and at the same table in the same room. In both works, Franklin wears a powdered wig with a distinctive center-front top knot and a brown suit with covered buttons.

However, while in the PMA’s portrait the sitter is portrayed as a scientist, in the later picture he is shown with spectacles and an open book as a philosopher or a statesman.

An inscription to the reverse of the canvas references an earlier attribution to the Venetian artist Pietro Longhi (1701-1785). However, the auction house believes it is also by Mason Chamberlin, painted around two years after the Declaration of Independence.

The discovery of the portrait in an Italian collection is not as incongruous as it may first sound. The portrait has a long history in Italy, where, through his diplomatic missions and Enlightenment thinking, Franklin was well known. His impact on political, social, and economic aspects of Italian life is the subject of the 1958 book Benjamin Franklin and Italy by Antonio Pace.