From ‘Riches to Rags to Riches’

Victorian painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema is back in style.

The Finding of Moses, 1904, was sold last November for $35.9 million. At one time the painting was considered less valuable than its frame.


In 1955 a London dealer sold The Finding of Moses, a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of the most celebrated  artists of the Victorian era, to a British couple for about $900. They paid for it in the gallery, took the painting, and left.

An hour later, a man came into the gallery and told the dealer, “There’s a painting in the alley next door.” The dealer went outside and discovered The Finding of Moses slumped against a wall. The couple had discarded the canvas and left with the frame.

“The dealer then offered the work, which is 533⁄4 by 84 inches, free to museums in Britain if they would frame it and hang it, but no museum took the offer,” Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, Utah, told me. Swanson has written two books on Alma-Tadema, including a catalogue raisonné.

Last November The Finding of Moses was sold to an anonymous buyer at Sotheby’s in New York for $35.9 million (including the buyer’s premium). The painting depicts Pharaoh’s daughter finding “one of the Hebrews’ children,” as told in Exodus (although Alma-Tadema elaborated the event described in the text).

“It’s a riches to rags to riches story,” Swanson said. “Alma-Tadema enjoyed his wealth and loved to share it. He gave a lot of money to charity. When he was a youth in Holland, where he was born, he lived in the most depressed conditions. His father died when he was four. He had to go to work as a youngster. The community raised money to send him to art school.”

Alma-Tadema’s house in England had previously belonged to another famous artist, James Tissot. It was modeled on a Pompeiian villa. In the garden were huge classical urns and, according to one writer, fountains splashing water into pools stocked with exotic fish. Visitors walked “alongside a vinery and through an arcade” to reach the entrance, “where there hung a bell in the form of a woman with a billowing skirt.”

“There was a Japanese room, a Chinese room, an Arabic room, and a Dutch 17th-century room,” Swanson said. “He was a loving family man and had a lively sense of humor. He called the bell Isabell and the door Isadoor. Here was a guy who laughed at his own jokes. He would say, ‘I’m as happy as a pig with two tails,’ which is Dutch agricultural humor. He loved to entertain. Among the guests at his parties were Tchaikovsky, Enrico Caruso, John Singer Sargent, Rodin, Paderewski, and Sarah Bernhardt.

“He liked to paint flowers. When he was working on one of his paintings, The Roses of Heliogabalus, which is about Roman decadence and has lots of pink petals, he had roses sent every week for four months from the French Riviera so that he could do them accurately.

“Alma-Tadema went from being one of the most famous artists in the world when he died to an artist practically nobody had heard of by 1935. When he died, the writer and critic Herbert Read said that Alma-Tadema’s Order of Merit—he had also been knighted by Queen Victoria—had to be ­disinfected because it had the smell of scented soap. They thought he was a 19th-century pretty boy.” Other critics called his genre ­paintings of classical Greece and Rome ­“refreshing camp” and labeled him a “technical genius with nothing to say.”

Why did he fall?  “All of his colleagues did,” Swanson said. “They fell because we left one era for another era. We hate what our mothers liked but love what our grandmothers liked. Modernism came in in the 20th century, and all the Victorians were considered sentimental, trite, shallow, and cluttered.”

So why has he been making a comeback? “We were so in thrall of modernism. It’s taken many years to get over it and regain our eyes. We’re seeing more clearly the Victorians’ innate qualities.”

The Finding of Moses was sold in 1904 to Sir John Aird, a prominent engineer, for about $25,000. In 1935 it brought $2,100. By 1942 it was worth only $682, and in 1960 it was bought-in at a Christie’s ­auction because the reserve price had not been reached. Soon after, it was purchased by a restaurant in Hertfordshire, England, which later sold it to a dealer.

“I bought it from the dealer in the 1960s for $8,500,” Ira Spanierman, the New York dealer, told me, “and I sold it to Allen Funt for $25,000.”

Funt was a television celebrity who created the Candid Camera show. He bought 35 works by Alma-Tadema, most of them from Spanierman. His collection was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973 in a show called “Victorians in Togas.” Later that year Funt sold the entire collection at Sotheby’s London for a total of $570,000. The Finding of Moses brought $72,801.

“He had to sell,” Spanierman said, because someone close to him stole his money. “Funt loved the paintings. He kept the original frames and put in photos of the paintings that he had sold.”

The Finding of Moses came up again at Christie’s in 1995 and sold for $2.7 million.

At last November’s sale, the estimate for the painting was $3 million to $5 million. “The auction took about eight minutes,” said Polly Sartori, Sotheby’s senior vice president and specialist in 19th-century European paintings. “It started with two phone bidders. One dropped out at $23 million. Seconds before the hammer went down, someone in the room went to $23.5 million. Then he bid a few more times and dropped out. It was up to 28 and it looked like it would sell to the bidder on the phone. Then another bidder started and it went up to 35.9 and ended with loud applause.” Sartori declined to name the winner.

The Finding of Moses was not the only Alma-Tadema that was sold recently. A ledger of his works and those of his wife, Laura, also a well-known painter, was in a carton of girlie magazines sold at auction in England late last year for about $10. The man who bought it knew what was in the carton. He sold the ledger at auction last May for about $40,000. The auctioneer told a reporter that the underbidder on the carton asked the buyer if he would sell him the magazines, “which I gather he did.”

What about the frame that was on The Finding of Moses when the painting was sold in 1955, for $900?  Swanson has no idea where it is today. It was by a well-known framemaker named Thomas Maws and “is probably worth between $250,000 and $300,000,” said Eli Wilner, a prominent New York frame dealer.

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