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Turner Watercolor Fetches Record $10.98M at Christie’s

A record-setting watercolor by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) led sales of British art at Christie’s the first week of June. Blue Rigi, Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise, which Christie’s called “the most important watercolor to appear at auction” for more than 50 years, sold for £5.8 million ($10.98 million), a record for a British work on paper.

NEW YORK—A record-setting watercolor by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) led sales of British art at Christie’s the first week of June. Blue Rigi, Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise, which Christie’s called “the most important watercolor to appear at auction” for more than 50 years, sold for £5.8 million ($10.98 million), a record for a British work on paper.

The artist’s later Swiss sets are considered among the most important of his works. According to the catalogue description, from 1841-44 Turner made annual trips to Switzerland, where he was inspired by the landscape around Lake Lucerne and the Rigi Mountain. Upon returning home to England in 1842, Turner executed four highly finished watercolors.

Christie’s did not reveal the identity or nationality of the Blue Rigi buyer, and it is not known whether the work will remain in the U.K.

The record price came just a few weeks after the British culture minister David Lammy placed a temporary export ban on two other important Turner works—Dark Rigi, 1842, and the earlier Lake of Lucerne, circa 1815.

U.K. Wants Painting to Stay Home

Blue Rigi reportedly was sold by dealer Simon Dickinson to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., for £2.7 million. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said the institution “cannot comment at this time.” Dickinson did not return a call from ARTnewsletter seeking comment. Says a release from the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS): “This will provide a last chance to raise the money to keep the paintings in the United Kingdom.” The department notes that the two artworks are of “outstanding aesthetic importance.”

The DCMS called Dark Rigi “a consummate example of Turner’s work,” which demonstrates his “skilled use of scratching out and stippling to lend texture to the surface of the paper.” Further, a reviewing committee for the culture minister recommended that the decision on Dark Rigi be deferred “on the grounds that it was of outstanding significance for the study of the work of J.M.W. Turner and, in particular, his mature works.” (A third work in the series, Red Rigi, has been in Melbourne, Australia, at the National Gallery of Victoria, since the late 1940s.)

Tate Britain, which has the largest collection of Turner works in the world— including several studies for the “Rigi” series—has begun a campaign to raise funds to match the price of Dark Rigi. According to a statement from Tate issued June 5, “Tate has written to the minister expressing strong interest in the Dark Rigi by J.M.W. Turner and asking for the export stop to be extended for a further four months. In the meantime we shall be approaching public- funding bodies and private benefactors with the intention of raising the sum that will be required to match the figure of £2.7 million which was agreed by the export reviewing committee.”

The department said a decision on an export- license application for Dark Rigi and Lake of Lucerne will be deferred for a period ending July 22. Furthermore, that period may be extended until Nov. 22 if “a serious intention to raise funds” for an offer to purchase Dark Rigi for £2.7 million is expressed. The recommended price for Lake of Lucerne is £2.088 million. The DCMS statement called the work “the culmination of a series of nine important and groundbreaking large Swiss views.”

The previous record for a work on paper by Turner was £2 million, for Heidelberg with a Rainbow, set in 2001. In April Christie’s set a record for a Turner at auction when Guidecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio sold in New York for $35.9 million (ANL, 4/25/06).

British Art Week Scores Record Total

Meantime Christie’s said British Art Week, comprising a series of sales including 20th -century British Art as well as furniture and sculpture, realized a total of £32.8 million ($60.4 million), a record for the category. British art sales alone accounted for £28.3 million ($52.6 million) of that amount.

The auction of 20th-century British art grossed £12.37 million ($22.8 million) and yielded several records and prices well above estimate. The Liver Buildings, Liverpool, 1962, by Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), doubled the high £500,000 estimate to sell for £1.07 million ($1.97 million). Ronda: In the Gorge of the Tajo, 1935, by David Bomberg (1890-1957), fetched £926,400 ($1.7 million).

Three sales of British art at Sotheby’s London on June 7 raised £5.9 million ($10.9 million). Included in this figure are totals for auctions of important British pictures (£3.67 million), drawings and watercolors (£1.36 million) and sporting art (£836,720).

Henry Wemyss, Sotheby’s specialist in charge of the works-on-paper sale, noted “the high levels of interest in the works offered,” calling them “clear indication of the current strength of the market for works on paper. Almost 70 percent of the works offered sold for prices above the high estimate, attracting buyers both from within the U.K. and from overseas.”

Turner again topped the works-on-paper sale when an anonymous buyer gave £288,000 ($534,701) for Aldborough, way past the estimated £60,000/ 80,000.

A total of five other paintings by Turner figured in the top lots. Hastings Fish Market on the Sands was acquired for £243,300 ($451,525) by the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery (estimate: £180,000/240,000) with a grant from the independent British charity The Art Fund.

Said Wemyss: “We were delighted that, with the aid of the Art Fund, the Hastings Museum was able to acquire Turner’s fabulous view of Hastings— something we hoped for and supported the moment the work was consigned.”

Among other Turner works in the sale: View of Turin from the Portico of the Superga Church, was purchased for £50,400 or $93,573 (estimate: £12,000/ 18,000); The Rigi, Lake Lucerne was sold within estimate for £66,000 ($122,536); and Valley of the Dhoon fetched £43,200, or $80,205 (estimate: £20,000/30,000).

Portrait of Charles Dormer, by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), topped the British pictures sale at £960,000 ($1.8 million), a record for the artist at auction. A painting by Sir Alfred Munnings, The Grey, was the highest-selling work at the sporting sale for a within-estimate £232,000 ($430,731); it was won by a private U.S. buyer.

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