Turner watercolour sold for record $17m

By Louise Jury

In just 10 minutes of frantic bidding, one of the most important watercolours in British art history also became the most expensive.

"The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise" by JMW Turner sold to an anonymous telephone bidder yesterday for £5.8 million (NZ$17.1m) - nearly three times the pre-sale estimate of £2 million.

This was significantly more than the previous record of £2.04 million for any Turner on paper set by "Heidelberg with a rainbow" in 2000.

And it also beats the previous record for any British artist on paper set by Dante Gabriel Rossetti six years ago when "Pandora" sold for £2.64 million.

The record for a Turner painting is £20.4 million for Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, set in April.

The bidding - originally between a buyer in the room and the telephone bidder until the buyer in the room dropped out and another joined by mobile - ended to astonished murmurings among the auction house crowd.

The auctioneer, Noel Annesley, Christie's honorary chairman, was forced to ask for hush to continue.

He said afterwards they were delighted with the result which had been achieved in an atmosphere of fevered expectation.

"The build-up of anticipation during the run-up to the sale as well as the enthusiastic response wherever this Blue Riga was displayed encouraged us to believe that this auction would lead to ground-breaking results," he said.

The Blue Rigi painting, considered the most important watercolour to come onto the market in more than half a century, was one of a trio of works the great artist produced while visiting Switzerland towards the end of his life.

Described as an extraordinary study in light and colour, it depicts the calm of sunrise interrupted by sudden movement as a gunshot spurs a pair of dogs to leap from a small boat towards some startled ducks.

It was used as the frontispiece of the Royal Academy's exhibition, Turner: The Great Watercolours in 2000.

But with details of the buyer unknown yesterday, British art -lovers feared that it is set to become the latest in a string of significant works to be lost overseas.

A sister work, The Dark Rigi, is currently the subject of a temporary export ban imposed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Until recently held in a British collection, that piece was sold to a gallery in Washington for £2.7 million and British buyers have until 22 July to come forward with a matching offer to keep it in the UK.

The Red Rigi, the third in the trio painted by Turner in 1842 as he approached 70 has been in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, since 1947.

Between 1841 and 1844, Turner (1775-1851) made annual visits to Switzerland where he was inspired by the dramatic scenery around Lake Lucerne.

On his return in 1842, he produced a number of highly-finished watercolours with the intention of using them to encourage further commissions.

John Ruskin, the important 19th century critic, said of the works: "Turner had never made any drawings like this before and never made any like them again."The Blue Rigi was originally sold to Elhanan Bicknell, a whaling magnate, for 80 guineas and was sold from his collection in 1863 for 296 guineas.

In 1912, it was auctioned again fetching 2,700 guineas and in 1942 was bought by the family who have just sold it for 1,500 guineas - a drop in price attributed to the war.

Andrew Wilton, a Turner scholar, has described the painting as intensely vivid.

"The barking [dogs] and the sound of splashing strike us as almost audible, and vividly dramatise the inviolable tranquillity of the scene: a real place, inhabited by the denizens of a real and yet beautiful world."


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