Rome, from Mount Aventine, one of less than 10 paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner still in private hands, sold at Sotheby’s in London for £30.3 million ($47.5 million). It’s a new record auction price for the artist, surpassing the previous record-holder, the sublime Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino by $2 million and leaving its pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million ($24,530,000 – $32,707,000) in the dust. In fact, it’s the highest auction price for any pre-20th century British artist.
A landscape of Rome viewed from the Aventine Hill looking north over the Tiber, the 1835 painting wasn’t done live, but rather from the sketches Turner did of the city during his 1828 visit. It’s an unusual prospect: the bustling Porto di Ripa, the Trastevere dock yards in front of the Ospizio di San Michele, in the midfield left, with Saint Peter’s dome in the far distance, the Ponte Emilio in center, and the Capitoline Hill with the bell tower of the Palazzo del Senatore crossing the horizon to the right. On the curve of the Tiber’s right bank stand the ruins of the ancient city: the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus, even the arches of the Colosseum visible in the misty light of dawn between the trees of the Aventine on the far right of the canvas.
It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 to much acclaim. It remained the property of the man who commissioned it, Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, until his death. It was purchased from the estate in 1878 by Archibald Primrose, the Fifth Earl of Rosebery and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (March 5th, 1894 – June 22nd, 1895), who also bought Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino. The Primrose family owned both paintings until they sold Campo Vaccino four years ago to fund an endowment that will support the Rosebery estates indefinitely.
The painting’s rarity, classic subject matter, impeccable provenance and exceptional condition engendered the bidding war. The award-winning success of the movie Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the artist, may have played a part too, at least in keeping Turner’s name on people’s lips.
Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, said: “It is hard to overstate the importance of Rome, From Mount Aventine. There are no more than half a dozen major works by Turner left in private hands and this work must rank as one of the very finest.
“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, his fingerprint, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.”
The buyer is an anonymous phone bidder who went up against three strongly motivated bidders on the floor. I’m hoping we’ll get a press release from a museum claiming responsibility. If the buyer plans to take it out of Britain, he or she can expect a temporary export ban like the one that delayed, but ultimately was unable to block, the Getty’s acquisition of Campo Vaccino.