LONDON (Reuters) - Auction house Christie's will offer an unconventional painting by French classical artist Nicolas Poussin, depicting Carthaginian general Hannibal astride an elephant, in July, expecting it to fetch 3-5 million pounds ($4.5-7.5 million).
The early work is not considered one of the artist's best and was little known until it appeared in public at an exhibition in Rouen in northern France in 1961.
But the auction house is hoping that its provenance - the painting was originally in the collection of Poussin's greatest patron in Rome, scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo - will help boost interest when it goes under the hammer in London on July 2.
"It was painted right after he arrived in Rome and he obviously developed as his career progressed," said Georgina Wilsenach, head of old master and British paintings at Christie's.
"I don't think that takes away its appeal," she added. "It is quite unusual. In terms of (Poussin) works coming up for auction, I think that most are religious paintings or mythological subjects."
The canvas, dating from the mid-1620s and measuring around 1.0 by 1.35 meters, depicts Hannibal on an elephant leading his troops on the fabled journey from Iberia into northern Italy via the Alps to attack Roman forces in the Second Punic War.
The dramatic early picture from an artist famed for works like "The Death of Germanicus" and "The Abduction of the Sabine Women" was snapped up by Cassanio for the then extravagant sum of 40 scudi.
According to Christie's, Poussin's patron paid over the odds for Hannibal in an apparent bid to help the artist who had fallen seriously ill while in Rome and, unable to work, found himself penniless.
PATCHY AUCTION RECORD
Poussin and Cassiano met soon after the French painter moved to Rome in 1624, but Cassiano was dispatched abroad on a papal legation and during his absence the artist lived hand-to-mouth and was forced to sell his pictures for whatever he could get.
Those financial difficulties ended with the return of Cassiano, who, along with his younger brother Carlo Antonio, acquired almost 50 works by Poussin including some of his masterpieces like the first "Seven Sacraments" series.
Poussin is considered one of the most influential artists in European art history and in 1640 was summoned by French king Louis XIII to be court painter, but his record at auction does not always reflect his reputation.
The highest price for a work by Poussin at auction is $6.7 million, set at Sotheby's in 1999 for "The Agony in the Garden".
When Christie's offered the key "Sacrament of Ordination" in 2010 for 15 to 20 million pounds, it did not find a buyer.
Eventually that work - a Cassiano commission and among the most important in Poussin's oeuvre - sold to the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas for $24.3 million in a private deal, the New York Times reported in 2011.
Wilsenach said she believed Poussin's depiction of Hannibal could appeal to collectors not normally interested in old master paintings yet attracted by the dramatic and powerful subject matter.
The picture would be on show in New York during Asian art week and also visit Moscow before the auction in recognition of that potential appeal, she added.
Something similar may have happened in New York in January, according to Wilsenach, when a 1574 Scipione Pulzone portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni in magnificent armor fetched $7.6 million at a Christie's sale versus estimates of $1.5-2.5 million.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)
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