Getty Museum ready to buy J.M.W. Turner masterpiece for $44.9 million -- if Brits won’t match the price


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[Story updated at 3:21 p.m.] The J. Paul Getty Museum is poised to pay $44.9 million for this J.M.W. Turner 1839 painting, ‘Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino,’ but don’t make plans to see it in Brentwood just yet.

The Getty was the high bidder for the painting Wednesday at an auction at Sotheby’s in London. But under British law, artworks of special significance that have been on British soil for more than 50 years can’t be sold and exported without a license -- and the deal can be sunk if a British institution, or sometimes an individual, steps up to match what the foreign buyer was willing to pay.


The Getty knows the drill: In 2002, it tried to buy Raphael’s ‘Madonna of the Pinks’ from the Duke of Northumberland. The sale was a no-go: The National Gallery in London got the painting instead after coming up with $46.6 million over the ensuing two years to buy the painting in the Getty’s stead.

David Bomford, the Getty Museum’s acting director, said it bid on the Turner painting knowing it could be balked once more. But for now, there’s the thrill of being very close to completing what he described in a statement as an “acquisition [that] ranks among the greatest in the history of the Getty Museum….Paintings by Turner rarely come to market and the absolutely flawless condition of this one makes it the work against which all other works by Turner will be judged.”

“Turner is quite simply the greatest British painter of the 19th century and occupies a unique and pivotal position in the history of art,” said Scott Schaefer, the Getty’s senior curator of paintings.

“Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino” is a view from above the city from the Capitoline Hill – a view that Emmeline Hallmark, head of Sotheby’s British painting department, said in an interview Wednesday is not unlike the view the Getty itself commands of Los Angeles.

In the foreground, people go about daily life; the ancient Forum and Coliseum are among the ruins pictured in what Sotheby’s catalog described as “a dreamlike vista” encompassing classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and the present in which Turner looked and lived.

Christopher Knight, The Times’ art critic, said Wednesday that there’s a “good reason” the painting had hung on loan for 30 years in the National Galleries of Scotland: “It’s a…tour de force, a celebratory elegy. Probably Turner’s last work in Rome, it shows the great classical, Renaissance and Baroque powerhouse city melting into a distinctly modern atmosphere of broken color and dazzling light. Looking at it, you know the world going forward will never be the same as it had been for centuries.”


Sotheby’s Hallmark said that bidding for the painting, one of just five by Turner that were privately owned, bounced back and forth “like a pingpong ball” over the course of about 10 minutes, as three telephone bidders dropped out and the auction narrowed to two people in the room. “I’ve never had another experience like it. It was electric,” she said. “Like all the best auctions, it was just thrilling to watch it go up in increments.”

Bidding on behalf of the Getty was a London dealer, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, which made the final call at $40 million; a buyer’s premium paid to the auction house brings the total the Getty must pay to $44.9 million.

Sotheby’s said the sale sets a new auction record for a painting by Turner, topping the $35.9 million paid in 2006 for his view of Venice, “Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio.”

The sellers, Britain’s Primrose family, must be delighted: The Getty’s bid for “Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino” eclipsed the pre-auction estimate of $18 million to $27 million. It had been in the family since 1878, when Archibald Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery, later a British prime minister, bought it at auction with his new wife, Hannah Rothschild. The only previous owner, Hugh Munro, was a close friend and patron of Turner, who bought it after it had hung in Turner’s 1839 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Given the high price that “Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino” fetched, Hallmark said, and the “wonderful collection” of Turner paintings already on display in British museums, it seems unlikely that a U.K. competitor will arise to prevent it from ending up at the Getty.

If the export license comes through, it will become the fourth painting by Turner in the Getty’s collection, joining an action-filled seafaring scene from 1844, “Van Tromp, Going About to Please His Masters, Ships at Sea, Getting a Good Wetting,” and a pair of watercolors, “Conway Castle, North Wales” (about 1800) and “Long Ships Lighthouse, Land’s End” (about 1835).


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s online collection archive lists a single Turner painting, “Lake of Geneva from Montreux,” painted around 1810.

-- Mike Boehm

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