HSBC’s Two Canalettos Sell for $15.7 Million at Auction

The Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge, Venice
"The Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge, Venice," by Canaletto is shown in this handout photo released to the media on Oct. 1, 2013. It is one of two Venetian views by the 18th century painter that are being sold by HSBC's corporate art collection at Sotheby's in London on Dec. 4. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Two paintings by Canaletto from the corporate art collection of HSBC Holdings Plc sold at an auction last night in London for 9.6 million pounds ($15.7 million), including fees.

The identically sized views of the St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge in Venice, dating from 1738 to 1742, were entered as a single lot in Sotheby’s sale of Old Masters paintings, estimated at 8 million pounds to 12 million pounds, based on hammer prices. They were bought by an unidentified collector, according to the company.

Canaletto (1697-1768), or Giovanni Antonio Canal, is the best-known view painter from 18th-century Venice and has long been prized by wealthy collectors. His paintings have risen in price in recent years as new international buyers focus on the most prominent Old Masters, leaving works by lesser historical names struggling to maintain their value as investments.

“These Canalettos were trophy paintings that were instantly recognizable,” said Philip Hoffman, chief executive officer of the London-based Fine Art Fund Group. “They were right up the street of the Russians and other emerging markets. The new money is concentrated on the big Old Master names.”

Andrew Fletcher, a senior director at Sotheby’s, said at a post-sale news conference that the Canalettos attracted bidding from clients who had never bid on Old Masters before.

The Canalettos had been owned by a succession of bankers. In the 18th century, they were in the collection of the British financier John Furnell Tuffen, who had a house in Park Lane in the Mayfair district of London.

Edmond Safra

The paintings were bought by Edmond Safra, founder of Safra Republic Holdings SA, for 3.9 million pounds at Sotheby’s in London in 1997. The Geneva-based bank holding company and its assets, including the two Canalettos, were sold by Safra to HSBC in 1999. The Lebanese-born billionaire died in a house fire in Monaco in the same year.

The auction record for Canaletto is 18.6 million pounds for “Venice, the Grand Canal, Looking Northeast From Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge,” at Sotheby’s London in 2005.

Works by Old Masters traditionally were the most expensive of all paintings before becoming less fashionable in the current market. Contemporary works now dominate, with a record $1.3 billion raised at auctions in New York in November. Perceptions that certain historic paintings are under-priced compared with recent works are attracting new buyers, particularly from Russia and Asia.

Sotheby’s previewed its Canaletto paintings in Moscow and Hong Kong, as well as New York and London.