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  • Turner sets auction record at Christie’s
    09.04.2006 by Deborah Brewster in New York

    A view of Venice by Joseph Mallord William Turner became the most expensive British painting sold at auction when it went for $35.856m (?20.5m) - 80 per cent above its estimate - at Christie’s in New York on Thursday.

    The auction house last week lifted its estimate on the painting to more than $20m after a higher than expected level of interest was shown in the work, Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio.

    The previous world record for a British painting is $21.1m for John Constable’s The Lock, set in 1990.

    The sale shows that the worldwide boom in the art market is lifting prices in almost all sectors of art.

    Turner is a pre-eminent member of the Old Masters, prices for which have in recent years been fairly flat as they fell out of fashion. However, Christie’s reported that Thursday’s Old Masters sale, in which it aimed to sell more than $50m of paintings, would be its biggest ever.

    Prices of Old Masters had by the middle of last year inched above the level of the last art market boom in 1990, according to a global index compiled by Artprice.com. Despite an air of excitement around the art market, and many records being broken in the past year, prices in most categories of art globally remain below the 1990 level, according to Artprice’s indices, which are among the most comprehensive available.

    However, indices measuring the prices of artworks sold in the US are nearly all above 1990. The Turner sale reflects the continued strength of the US market, which has led London and Paris in pushing up prices.

    The painting was sold by the St Francis of Assisi Foundation, which is based in New York, and proceeds of the sale will fund Franciscan missions around the world. London is the traditional home of Old Masters - and the venue for almost all the sales of Turner’s works to date - so Thursday’s sale was also seen as a test of the New York market.

    Nicholas Hall, the international head of Old Masters at Christie’s, said the auction house had decided to keep the painting in New York rather than ship it to London for sale, because it wanted to reach the maximum number of potential buyers.

    The Turner is the finest of his works to be sold at auction in a generation, Christie’s said. The most expensive Turner sold to date is Seascape, Folkestone, sold in London in 1984 for $9m. Only nine of his paintings have appeared at auction in the past decade, according to Artprice.com. However, about 100 of his watercolours have sold.

    Turner visited Venice for the last time in 1840 and created 150 watercolours from the trip, from which he produced three paintings, including this one, on his return. A private collector donated the work to the foundation in the past decade.

    Christie’s said the work was first exhibited in 1941, where it was bought for 250 guineas. In 1863, it was sold at Christie’s for 1,650 guineas, and in 1897, it was sold again at Christie’s, for 6,800 guineas.

    Michael Moses, a New York University academic who with Jianping Mei compiles the Mei Moses art price indices, said that 6,800 guineas was a top price for the time, and equivalent to almost $35,000 today.

    “It is a fantasy that these (Old Masters) artists were penniless and living in garrets,” he said. “Of the major artists who are well known and sell well today, 99 out of 100 of them were selling well in their own life time, and doing very well.”

    He said that if the painting sold for $20m, that would represent a 6 per cent compound return on the 1897 price.