By Robert Kyle
Special to The Washington Post.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
An 18th-century unsigned oil painting of the Grand Canal in Venice, estimated at a modest $6,000 to $8,000, sold for $687,125 Sunday afternoon at Sloans & Kenyon auction house in Chevy Chase. It is believed to be the most expensive painting ever sold at a Washington area auction.
Thirteen phone bidders competed against live bidders in the gallery for this work from the "school of" the 18th-century artist Giovanni Antonio Canaletto.
The auction company had received the piece from a Bethesda woman who has requested anonymity. The painting had been in the family since 1881, when her grandmother brought it back from Europe. The grandmother had embarked on what was known in the day as a "Grand Tour," an excursion designed to expose the traveler to enlightenment, adventure, art and culture.
Grand tourists, as the travelers were known, would typically return with artwork they acquired on the journey, which was considered an essential ritual for entry into British high society. "They didn't send postcards or bring back T-shirts," said Ellen Garrity, communications director at Sloans & Kenyon. "They brought back paintings."
And so it was that the consignor's grandmother, identified in the catalogue as Mrs. Charles Alexander, made her tour as a young American woman. She probably acquired the painting while in London; a label on the back is from the gallery of Dowdeswell & Dowdeswells Ltd. on New Bond Street.
"This appears to be the highest price ever obtained for a work of art sold at auction in the metropolitan Washington area," Garrity said.
The fresh-to-market find after nearly 130 years attracted nine phone bidders from Europe representing people in England, Italy, Scotland and Sweden. The first bid was $25,000. After a flurry of escalating offers, it sold to a floor bidder, an agent for a London buyer, for $575,000 plus a 19.5 percent buyer's premium.
"It is highly probable the painting is by Michele Marieschi," said London art dealer Charles Beddington, who was an adviser to the painting's runner-up, who stopped bidding at $550,000. Marieschi, another 18th-century artist, never signed his work and died young, Beddington said.
Sold just minutes before the three-day sale ended, Lot 1505 was described as "School of Giovanni Antonio 'Il Canale' Canaletto (Italian 1697-1768) Grand Canal, Venice, With a View of the Doge's Palace." Its framed size is 22 inches by 33 inches. It is not dated.
The Grand Canal in Venice was a favorite subject of Canaletto's and those who followed him. An original Canaletto is worth millions. Paintings by his associates, meanwhile, can fetch six figures. In 2007, Sotheby's in London sold an original Canaletto oil of the Grand Canal for $9.7 million. In 2008, Christie's in London sold another Grand Canal view for $6.6 million.
Sotheby's in London sold two other views of Venice painted in the style of Canaletto for $235,717 and $248,069 in 2007. Earlier this year, Sotheby's, New York, got $422,500 (hammer price, the price before taxes or commissions are added) for a view of Venice from the piazza from "the studio of" Canaletto.
The low presale estimate for Sunday's painting -- less than $10,000 -- proved irresistible. Sloans & Kenyon President Stephanie Kenyon explained why expectations were so modest: "With an unsigned painting of a high caliber, we estimate the work conservatively but expose it extensively and internationally, and then let the market decide."
Before Sunday's auction, the most expensive painting the company had sold had been "Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards London" by British landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837). It brought $442,500 in April 1999 when the company operated as C.G. Sloan & Co., and was also sold to a London bidder. Like the Canaletto-style work, the Constable had been hanging on a wall of a Maryland home for many years.
"It made pretty much what it should have," said Beddington of the painting sold Sunday. "It was a good result. The auction company should be happy."