Spanish baroness says hard times forced her to sell painting

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MADRID -- A Spanish heiress’ sale of a 19th century masterpiece by the British painter John Constable has sparked a high-society family feud in recession-ridden Madrid.

The 1824 oil painting of an English countryside scene, entitled “The Lock,” has long been displayed in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, alongside works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso and others. It fetched $35 million at auction Tuesday at Christie’s in London, a record for any work by Constable, an English Romantic painter. It now ranks in the top five most expensive British paintings ever sold.

Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, the fifth wife of the late Swiss industrialist who founded the museum, has said she was forced to sell the painting because of lack of “liquidity” in Spain’s dismal economy. The unemployment rate tops 24%, and the country has requested a bailout of much as $125 billion from Europe.

“It’s very painful for me [to sell the painting], but there was no other way out,” the baroness told the Spanish newspaper El Pais. “I need the money -- I really need it. I have no liquidity. Keeping the collection here is costly to me, and I get nothing in return.”


But the 69-year-old heiress, a former Miss Spain beauty queen who goes by the single moniker “Tita,” is one of the richest women in Spain. She’s said to employ 80 servants at four luxury villas and owns a Rolls-Royce and a 175-foot yacht. Both relatives and art aficionados have cast doubt on her claim of hardship.

“She likes to pretend she is a typical Spanish citizen who is struggling just like everyone else, but that could not be further from the truth,” the baroness’ stepdaughter, Francesca von Habsburg, told the Mail on Sunday in Britain. “The baroness has shown absolutely no respect for my father and she is simply putting her own financial needs above everything else.”

Von Habsburg, 54, is the only daughter of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who died in 2002 at age 81, and his third wife, a Scottish model. She and her stepmother both serve as museum trustees.

“The loss of the work will tarnish the image of the collection, and she is part and parcel of a downward spiral,” Von Habsburg said of her stepmother. “My fear is that this will lead to a domino effect and other paintings will be lost.”

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has nearly 1,000 works on display, organized chronologically from the 13th century to the 20th century. The late baron deeded most of his collection over to the Spanish government before his death, but about 200 pieces legally belong to his widow, who loaned them to the museum long term for free. The Constable painting was one of those works, which the baroness technically had legal authority to sell.

But the decision to sell the Constable prompted the resignation of another museum trustee, who accused the flamboyant baroness of having “no understanding of art history.”

The painting’s sale “represents a moral shame on the part of all those concerned, most especially on the part of Tita,” Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions director of London’s Royal Academy, wrote in his resignation letter to the Thysssen-Bornemisza Museum last week.

“I am afraid I have to say, in my humble opinion, she has little or no understanding of art history, or of genuine artistic importance in the context of the museum,” he wrote.

The thrice-married baroness is also mired in a legal battle with her son from a previous marriage, whom the baron had adopted. The son is now suing his mother for a share of the art collection, after they fell out over his choice of a wife.

“The Lock” is one of six works Constable painted of various scenes along southern England’s Stour River Valley, including “The Hay Wain,” his most famous work. They were originally displayed at the Royal Academy in London between 1819 and 1825. The baron bought “The Lock” in 1990 for about $17 million, which was a record for any British painting at the time. It was the last of the series to remain in private hands.

The painting was sold Tuesday night to an anonymous bidder over the phone, Christie’s said. The new owner hasn’t been identified publicly, and it’s unclear whether the work will be displayed in the future. The most expensive piece of art sold at auction is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” which sold in New York for $119.9 million in May.


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-- Lauren Frayer