January 16, 2015

John Constable Painting Sold By Christie's For £3,500 In June 2013 Will Now Go To Market To Sell For £2 million


A painting which sold for £3,500 has gone back on the market for £2million after it was revealed to be an artwork by renowned British artist John Constable.

Auctioneers Christie's of London thought a fan had painted the study of Salisbury Cathedral in homage to Constable's famous 1831 work, and so valued it at just £500.

A collector snapped it up for £3,500 in June 2013 but after taking a closer look they suspected the original artwork had actually been painted over.

Restorers were called in to remove the added brushstrokes, and to the new owner's delight the oil painting was confirmed by scholars to be an original work by the famous artist.


Experts said the previously unknown painting is one of several preparatory works Constable did before creating the masterpiece 'Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows', which was bought by the Tate gallery last year for £23.1million.

After being catalogued by one of the world's leading authorities on Constable, the painting is now for sale with auctioneers Sotheby's with an estimate of £2million - 4,000 times the original estimate.

Prior to its sale in 2013 the 18inch by 24inch painting had been in a collection amassed in the 19th century by William Henry Smith, founder of the high street stationary chain.

It hung on the walls of Hambleden Manor in the Chilterns, home to his descendants the Viscounts Hambleden, until the Elizabethan property was sold in 2007.

Lady Hambleden, 83, sold off the contents of the house - including the Constable painting - in the Christie's auction which raised £1.17million.

But specialists apparently failed to spot that the painting of Salisbury Cathedral was an original, instead listing it as being done by 'a follower of Constable'.

It was valued at £500 to £800 and sold for £3,500 to the anonymous buyer, who then realised the painting had been heavily retouched in what experts described as 'misguided attempt' to 'finish' it.

Industry specialists said Lady Hambledon will have a case to sue Christie's if the painting goes on to sell for £2million and it is shown that the auctioneers did not carry out due diligence when checking the work.

The catalogue note for the Constable sketch has been written by Anne Lyles, a leading authority on the artist and former curator at the Tate.

She said that it is now believed that Constable painted the preparatory work in 1830, a year before he completed his renowned 60inch by 75inch masterpiece, while trying to decide on the right angles, lighting and weather.

She said: 'Constable is one of Britain's best loved and most significant landscape painters, a key figure in British Romantic art of the early 19th century.

'This oil sketch is one of five preliminary oil sketches which Constable made for Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows which is perhaps the greatest of his late masterpieces, and which was only recently acquired for the nation after a major fund-raising campaign.

'The recent emergence of this oil sketch from the Hambleden collection, where it was hitherto completely unknown to scholars, reveals its key role in establishing the dramatic and beautiful chiaroscuro of the final picture.

'The striking light effects on the cathedral in the completed picture, with its majestic spire piercing the stormy sky like a needle, are derived chiefly from the present study.

'Moreover, it also reveals Constable's development of the composition, notably at the right where the familiar shape of Harnham Ridge now comes into view.

'It is thus one of the most exciting and important additions to the master's oeuvre to have emerged in recent decades.

'The date at which the painting entered the collection of the Viscounts Hambleden is uncertain, however the most prolific collectors of that family were W.H. Smith, founder of the eponymous book sellers, and his son W.F.D. Smith, the Second Viscount.

'They amassed a fine collection of Old Masters, including a masterpiece by Claude Lorraine, as well as several exceptional British old masters including the present painting.

'At the time of the dispersal of the contents of Hambleden Manor at Christies in 2013, it is interesting to note that this painting was overlooked.

'The present work by Constable was heavily retouched with a dark and opaque pigment which probably dated to the late 19th or early 20th century in a misguided attempt to 'finish' the painting, thus depriving it of its lively, sketchy quality.

'Thankfully the re-touchings on the present painting were readily soluble in the course of its recent cleaning, and Constable's original and brilliant conception has been once again revealed.'

Ms Lyle said Constable paintings could be tricky to attribute to the artist but she stood by her view that it was an original.

She added: 'Although it seems surprising that in this day and age something could be sold apparently unnoticed it is not unheard of when it comes to Constable's works.

'A lot of his pictures were sold after his death in 1838 while some were passed on to his family and made their way into the market that way.

'In the 19th century, art dealers didn't have the knowledge we have now or the same standards we have now.

'If they acquired something they deemed not to be finished they didn't think twice about asking a painter or restorer to add a little bit of paint to improve it or make it look finished.

'That explains how it is still possible for art to be sold under another name until someone with a very good eye looks closely, spots something interesting and takes a risk.

'That is what happened here. The buyer in 2013 will have taken an well-informed punt on this painting, which had a very low estimate, and then got it cleaned.

'Not everyone who takes a punt is going to get it right but on this occasion they did.

'I look at pictures by Constable all the time and after seeing the cleaned painting I thought it looked promising.

'I then did masses of research trying to work out how this painting fits into the evolution of the final piece.

'I remained entirely confident that it looked right in the first instance and it did actually fit that timeline.

'The fact is that unless you can resuscitate the artist no-one can swear 100 per cent something is original, they are only opinions, but I stand by my own opinion.

'Potentially the situation between Christie's and the original seller could be a complicated one but that's an area I don't get involved in.'

Ivan Macquisten, the editor of the Antiques Trade Gazette, said there was a greater burden on bigger, reputable auction houses with specialist departments correctly to judge a work presented to them for sale.

He said: 'There was a legal case in 1990 that set a precedent for this when provincial auctioneers Messenger May Baverstock of Surrey failed to recognise something that ended up selling for a lot more and was sued by the vendor.

'In the High Court, a judge established a degree of responsibility that auctioneers have.

'If you are a small auction house holding your sales in a village hall it is reasonable that you may not identify such a painting.

'But if you are a Sotheby's or a Christie's with specialists departments with some of the leading specialists in the world, then you probably are. The burden on these bigger auction houses to get it right is far higher.

'That is not to say they are negligent or liable, that depends on how easily the work would be to identify and what due diligence was carried out to identify it.

'Have they been negligent by not carrying out checks on things like the composition of the painting and, in the case of Constable who was known for his cloudscapes, the quality of the clouds?

'I would be surprised if the previous vendor was not considering taking the matter further.'

A spokesman for Christie's said today: 'We are aware that Sotheby's are offering this work as by Constable.

'We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was by a 'follower of'. We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.'

Constable was born in rural Suffolk in 1776 and was celebrated for his oil paintings of English landscapes.

'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows' is among his most famous works, which also include The Hay Wain, Dedham Vale and The Leaping Horse.

The auction will take place on January 29 in New York.


By Emma Glanfield

With thanks to The Daily Mail UK

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