Record price for Constable at center of family feud

LONDON Tue Jul 3, 2012 7:59pm EDT

Gallery assistants pose with John Constable's The Lock which is on display at Christies in central London, June 12, 2012. The painting was once the most valuable ever sold at auction and is expected to fetch in excess 20 million pounds (31 million US$ approx) when it goes under the hammer in the Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale on 3 July. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Gallery assistants pose with John Constable's The Lock which is on display at Christies in central London, June 12, 2012. The painting was once the most valuable ever sold at auction and is expected to fetch in excess 20 million pounds (31 million US$ approx) when it goes under the hammer in the Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale on 3 July.

Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris

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LONDON (Reuters) - An important work by British landscape artist John Constable at the center of a bitter feud within a Spanish aristocratic family sold for 22.4 million pounds ($35 million) at Christie's on Tuesday, a new auction record for the painter.

"The Lock" is one of a celebrated series of six large-scale canvases that also includes "The Hay Wain", arguably Constable's most famous work that hangs in Britain's National Gallery in London, and had been expected to fetch 20-25 million pounds.

Minus commission, the final price came in at the low end of expectations, although it easily beat the previous benchmark for Constable of 10.8 million pounds when the same work was sold in 1990.

Overall, the old master and British paintings evening sale brought in 85.1 million pounds at the world's biggest auctioneer, the highest ever total for the category.

"The Lock" was the last of the Constable series still in private hands, and was sold from the collection of Baroness Carmen "Tita" Thyssen-Bornemisza - a decision that drew public criticism from a member of her family and a leading figure in the art world.

Tita has said parting with the painting was "very painful," but added that she needed the money despite her huge wealth.

"I have no liquidity. Keeping the collection here is costly to me, and I get nothing in return," she told Spanish daily newspaper El Pais recently.

The baroness, a former Miss Spain, was the fifth wife and widow of Swiss billionaire industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who amassed a huge private art collection before his death in 2002.

Much of that collection went to the Spanish state, but many works also remained in the baroness's private collection.

The Constable had been housed in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and its sale prompted the resignation of museum board member Norman Rosenthal.

In his resignation letter, the former head of exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London wrote that the decision "represents a moral shame on the part of all those concerned, most especially on the part of Tita."

Also critical was the baroness's stepdaughter Francesca Von Habsburg, who told London's The Mail on Sunday: "The baroness has shown absolutely no respect for my father and is simply putting her own financial needs above everything else."

"The Lock" was completed in 1824, one of the most important years in Constable's career which saw "The Hay Wain" exhibited at the Paris Salon and King Charles X of France award him a gold medal.

Constable's success in France has been seen by many experts as a factor in inspiring French artists in a movement of landscape painting that would find its fullest expression some five decades later in the work of the Impressionists.

"The Lock" is a landscape depicting a man at a lock with a boat on the river just behind him, set under a towering tree and a dramatic, cloud-filled sky.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Richard Chang)

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