An Italian Renaissance painting by Andrea Mantegna was sold today to California's J. Paul Getty Museum for $10.45 million, a record for a painting sold at auction.
"The Adoration of the Magi," painted between 1495 and 1505 for the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantua, was sold this afternoon via a televised satellite hookup between Regine's disco in New York and Christie's salesrooms in London. The seller was the Marquess of Northampton.
Although an 800-year-old illuminated manuscript -- the Gospels of Henry the Lion -- brought $11.8 million at auction in 1983, the Mantegna holds the record for paintings. It is the second painting in the past year to break the $10 million barrier. J.M.W. Turner's "Seascape: Folkestone," an 1845 canvas from the estate of the art historian Kenneth Clark, was knocked down for 7.37 million pounds sterling at Sotheby's last July. Sotheby's 10 percent buyer's premium brought the price in dollars to $10.02 million. The Mantegna was knocked down for 7.5 million pounds. Christie's in London exacts a buyer's premium of only 8 percent.
The Mantegna, completed shortly before the master's death in 1506, depicts the Three Wise Men offering gifts to the Christ child while Mary and Joseph look on. Despite its modest size -- it is 21 1/2 inches high and 27 3/8 inches wide -- the canvas includes six memorable portraits. Mantegna, who was born circa 1431 near Vicenza, was much admired by his contemporaries for his ability to gracefully group numerous figures in a restricted space. At least eight other versions of his "Adoration" are recorded, making the painting one of Mantegna's most influential works.
Though the Magi appear in many Renaissance paintings, Mantegna's interpretation, as the critic Roger Fry wrote of it with characteristic reserve in 1905, "is one of the very few renderings of the subject which are at all adequate."
Most Mantegnas are already in museum collections, and several are frescoes affixed to churches and palaces in Italy. "I would say there is hardly anything rarer in this picture field," said Christie's Ian Kennedy, "or finer."
Though some speculated that the picture would set a record, Christie's hedged its bets. "Our bold estimate," Patrick Lindsay, today's auctioneer and head of Christie's Old Masters paintings department, said by phone from London, "had the picture going for $6 to $8 million."
As a crowd of about 100 smartly dressed auction buffs looked up to a 7-foot-wide television screen here in Regine's' mirrored Art Deco ballroom, the auction was telecast promptly at noon from Christie's lofty Regency-style salesroom on St. James's in London. Fourteen other Old Masters were sold as a warm-up to the Mantegna grand finale. Bidding throughout was brisk. But, to the confusion of the American contingent watching television, bids were quoted on a digital currency changer in pounds sterling converted into German marks and Swiss and French francs -- but not into dollars, because of a mechanical malfunction.
The Getty Museum also walked away with another version of "The Adoration of the Magi." This one by Nicolo' di Tommaso was sold for $76,626. Other paintings by Jan Bruegel the Elder, Aelbert Cuyp and other masters of the Renaissance in Holland, Italy and France brought respectable five- and six-figure prices.
Bidding on the Mantegna started at 3 million pounds. Within seconds the price had jumped to 4 million, then 5 million, 6 million. There was a slight pause at 7 million as all but the final two contestants, Tim Bathurst, an employe of Artemis Fine Arts bidding on behalf of the Malibu, Calif., museum, and a representative of the Wildenstein Gallery of New York and Paris, bidding on behalf of an undisclosed client, sized each other up.
At 7.5 million pounds, Lindsay quickly pounded the gavel and called out the name Artemis. John Walsh, the director of the Getty, said he was "truly overjoyed" to have acquired such a picture. Eventually it will be permanently installed in the Getty as the centerpiece of a small collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. The museum, however, is not celebrating yet.
According to British law, the painting first must be cleared by the "Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art." The Getty has been the target of several attacks in the British press for acquiring England's treasures. Although Mantegna's famous picture cycle "The Triumphs of Caesar" is in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court, and though there are four major Mantegnas in the National Gallery in London, there is no telling whether the export license will be granted. But even if it is denied, someone in Britain will have to come up with $10.4 million or the the picture will be allowed to leave the country. This seems unlikely.
When asked why the Marquess of Northampton, one of the richest men in Britain, had sold the picture, Lindsay said, "He has two big estates. I suppose he needs new roofs and probably needs some repairs done on his cottages. Like many of us here, he probably needs the money."