A landscape by J.M.W. Turner, once owned by a member of the Rothschild family, sold last night for an artist record 29.7 million pounds ($45.1 million) as selective buyers continued to test the art market.
Turner’s work, on offer for the first time since it was purchased in 1878 by Hannah Rothschild and her husband, was the top lot of 57 in a Sotheby’s London auction of Old Master and British Paintings.
The price is the latest record paid in 2010 for trophy works by top artists with prestigious provenances. Alberto Giacometti’s 1961 bronze “Walking Man I” sold for 65 million pounds at Sotheby’s. Pablo Picasso’s 1932 painting “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” fetched $106.5 million -- the most for any artwork at auction -- at Christie’s International in New York in May. An Amedeo Modigliani sculpture took 43.2 million euros ($53 million) at Christie’s in Paris in June.
“I thought it would make between 22 million and 45 million pounds,” the New York-based dealer Richard L. Feigen said in an interview after the Turner sale. “It depended on whether a Giacometti or Modigliani buyer moved into the 19th century. It seems they didn’t, which meant it was relatively cheap: a wise buy.”
Turner’s 1839 canvas “Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino,” a twilight view of some of the Italian capital’s famous monuments and his last depiction of the city, was estimated by Sotheby’s to fetch between 12 million pounds and 18 million pounds at hammer prices. It was bought in the room by the London dealer Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox acting on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. The lot was underbid in the room by an unidentified international private buyer, said the U.S.-based auction house.
The 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter) work was shown at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and four decades later acquired on honeymoon by Rothschild and the 5th Earl of Rosebery, who later became the U.K.’s prime minister. They paid 4,450 guineas -- an old British currency unit -- for the work, and it hung in the family’s country mansion, Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, and their London residences for a century. It was in unrestored condition in its original frame and was being sold by an unidentified descendant of the 5th Earl. Harry Dalmeny, heir to the present 7th Earl of Rosebery, is deputy chairman of Sotheby’s U.K.
Joseph Mallord William Turner is regarded as the U.K.’s most important pre-20th century artist, said dealers, and the most expensive. An 1841 view of Venice, “Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio,” sold in April 2006 at Christie’s, New York, for $35.9 million, at the time a record for a British painting at auction. Turner was later overtaken by another U.K. artist, Francis Bacon.
Apart from the Turner, six works sold for more than 1 million pounds, all of them by Dutch or Flemish artists.
The short-term investment potential of Old Masters was tested by an early 17th-century panel painting of a bearded old man by Rembrandt’s contemporary, Jan Lievens. The work sold at Sotheby’s for a record 1.9 million pounds with fees in July 2004 to the London-based dealer Johnny van Haeften. The painting was subsequently acquired by a Dutch collector, who re-offered it last night with a low estimate of 2 million pounds. It sold in the room to the Paris-based dealer Bob Haboldt for a hammer price of 2.2 million pounds, translating to 2.5 million pounds with fees.
The same figure was paid by a telephone bidder for a previously unrecorded painting by Pieter Breughel the Younger of a village fete that carried a low estimate of 2.2 million pounds. Datable to between 1617 and 1621, the work was unrestored and had been in the same European family collection for 60 years, said Sotheby’s.
A 1607 oil-on-copper village scene by Jan Breughel the Elder had been in an English private collection for a similar period. This was bought in the room for 1.6 million pounds, above its high estimate, by a man with a pony tail identified by dealers as a Russian art trader, underbid by Van Haeften.
Bidding for middling-quality paintings was subdued, with a Claude Lorrain oil-on-copper landscape, estimated at 400,000 pounds to 600,000 pounds, among the 18 failures. This had been sold at auction as recently as 2007.
“The sale did OK given the lackluster state of the economy,” Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the London-based Fine Art Fund, said in an interview. “All the best things sold well and the mediocre things had no market.”
Sotheby’s sale raised 53.5 million pounds with fees, beating a high estimate of 49.6 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Sixty-eight percent of the material sold.
Last year, Sotheby’s equivalent auction totaled 26 million pounds from 48 lots, plus a further 9.9 million pounds for a group of artworks from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection.
Following the 14.2 million-pound sale of works by Rubens and Guercino at its Old Master paintings sale on July 6, Christie’s raised a further 6.9 million pounds in London from items entered by the Spencer family.
At a two-day event finishing this evening, Christie’s auctioned more than 800 lots from the family’s country residence, Althorp in Northamptonshire -- the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales -- and Spencer House in London.
The top price was 802,850 pounds, for a pair of George II armchairs thought to have been designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, estimated at 200,000 pounds to 300,000 pounds.
The event attracted more than 1,000 bidders, drawn by the aristocratic provenance and estimates as low as 200 pounds. A George IV state chariot sold for 133,250 pounds. A group of 25 decorative jelly moulds climbed to 14,375 pounds against a low estimate of 1,000 pounds.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)