John Constable’s The Lock (1824), one of the English painter’s acknowledged masterpieces, depicts an idyllic and quintessentially English pastoral scene in which the sky and atmosphere are endowed with a vibrancy the Impressionists would later aspire to. In recent years the painting has hung in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, placed there on extended loan from the personal collection of the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Not anymore. Last summer the baroness abruptly withdrew the painting from the museum to put it up for auction at Christie’s London, where in July it fetched £22.4 million ($35.2 million). The sale provoked anger in Spanish art circles, protest among museum trustees, and public squabbling among members of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family.
“For Spain, the loss of The Lock is of a seriousness that is difficult to measure,” wrote Francisco Calvo Serraller, former director of the Prado Museum, in the Spanish daily El País. “Faced by this terrible loss, any art lover will feel not only terrible pain, but also a legitimate rage resulting from the shady, tricky and unexplained way this awful affair has been carried out.”
“She may have had a legal right to sell the painting, but no moral right, and it was done with indecent speed,” said Sir Norman Rosenthal, who resigned from the board of the museum to protest the sale. “It was on public view, and it is no longer, thanks to this shocking, immoral, and hideous act,” Rosenthal told ARTnews.
Known familiarly as Tita, the 69-year-old Spanish-born baroness is an outspoken, colorful figure. A former Miss Spain, once married to the American actor Lex Barker (known best for his portrayal of Tarzan), she became the fifth wife of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1985. Citing a lack of liquidity as her reason for selling The Lock—“I need cash,” she told Spanish journalists—Tita brushed off Rosenthal’s criticism of her decision.
“Norman Rosenthal was not a friend of my husband and never advised him,” she told the Spanish press. “I can’t see what he has to do with all this or why his opinion should matter.”
Another outspoken critic of the sale of The Lock was museum trustee Francesca von Habsburg, the 54-year-old daughter of the baron by an earlier marriage.
“Tita has no real understanding of art; she just uses it as a means to improve her social standing and prestige,” von Habsburg told ARTnews. “She benefits from professional handling of her collection by the staff of the museum, that she does not contribute a single penny toward and that tremendously enhances the value of her collection most obviously, and it is housed in a building that she gets for free, in the center of Madrid. Any other self-respecting collector would donate their collections to a state for so much generosity in return.”
Tita, whose clashes with the rest of the baron’s heirs are frequent fodder for European gossip columns, was equally harsh in her response. “Francesca is an idiot looking for publicity,” she told the Spanish press. “She herself sold 18 paintings as soon as her father died.”
With its $35.2 million sale price, The Lock fell short of its high-end estimate of $39 million. Nonetheless, the sale established a new auction record for the artist. (The buyer was not identified.) This was only the second time the painting has changed hands: it was purchased by James Morrison the first day it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1824 and remained in the same family until Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased it for a then-record £10.8 million ($21.2 million) in 1990.
Criticism of the recent sale notwithstanding, Tita is generally credited with having brought the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection to Spain in the first place. The product of three generations of art collecting by the Thyssen family, and considered by many to be the greatest private collection in Europe in the 20th century, it was housed in the baron’s villa in Lugano, Switzerland. But when the baron wanted to establish a permanent institutional setting for it, he was rebuffed by the Swiss government. With Tita acting as catalyst, a deal was struck with the Spanish government and a major museum was created overnight in Madrid. The relocation of the collection in 1993 was said to be the largest transfer of artwork since Napoleon returned to Paris with his spoils.
The core of the baron’s collection, which was valued at the time at an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion, and for which the baron received $350 million in compensation, went to the museum. The baroness’s private collection consists of works (such as The Lock) from the baron’s collection that were not incorporated into the museum and which she therefore inherited upon his death in 2002. She has also purchased hundreds of paintings on her own: an eclectic group with an emphasis on 19th- and early-20th-century Spanish and Catalan artists such as Joaquín Sorolla, Ignacio Zuloaga, and Ramon Casas, as well as American landscape painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. Under a loan agreement with the museum, certain paintings from her collection have been exhibited there since 2004 as the “Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection” in a wing built expressly to house them.
With that agreement due to expire next year, Tita has expressed the hope that the Spanish government might acquire the loaned works permanently, much as the baron’s original collection was acquired 20 years ago, or else pay her an annual rental fee with a future purchase option. But given the Spanish economic situation, such a move is all but impossible. In this context, the sale of The Lock—as well as Tita’s recent sale to an American collector of Childe Hassam’s Paris Street, Autumn (1889) and her public comments about offers she is considering for Gauguin’s Mata Mua (1892)—can be seen as a warning to the Spanish government. This reading was reinforced when she let drop in the Spanish press that a Russian contingent had been sent by President Vladimir Putin to negotiate acquiring her collection.
The sale of The Lock, which Guillermo Solana, director of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, described as “sad, but legal,” is only one of the museum’s woes. The institution recently lost its primary private sponsor, Caja Madrid, as a result of the Spanish banking crisis. At the same time, Spanish museum budgets (most of which depend primarily on the government) are being slashed mercilessly. With further austerity measures ahead and no end in sight to the nation’s economic crisis, the loss of The Lock may be a signal of the difficulties that lie in store not only for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum but for all of Spain’s cultural institutions.
George Stolz is the Madrid correspondent for ARTnews.