Although it led the auction by a considerable distance, the competition that arrived on Ehrenbreitstein was underwhelming with the lot selling on its revised low-estimate to a lone phone bidder.
It was originally estimated at £15m-25m in the catalogue, but this was scaled up to £17m-25m after the lot became the subject of an ‘irrevocable bid’ arranged in the run-up to the auction.
Asked to comment on what had happened, co-chairman worldwide of Sotheby's Old Master paintings department Alex Bell said after the sale: “Some vendors, including trustees, like security going into a sale. The revised estimate was still within the original range.”
The price fetched was shy of two works by Turner sold in the same room in the last seven years: Rome, from Mount Aventine which took £27m in December 2014 and holds the auction record for the artist, and Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino which also sold at Sotheby's in July 2010 for £26.5m and was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The 3ft 1in x 4ft 2in (93cm x 1.26m) oil on canvas dated from 1835 and depicted the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein, a military ruin perched on a rock above Coblenz in Germany where the Rhine meets the Mosel.
It was painted for the publisher John Pye and, having changed hands a number of times since, it was last on the market in July 1965 when it appeared at Sotheby’s and was knocked down at £88,000 (a then-record for a British painting) to London dealers Agnew’s. They were bidding on behalf of an English collector and the picture had passed by descent to the current vendor.
Elsewhere at the auction, some decent bidding emerged on a small oil on panel portrait of the engraver Jean-Baptiste Barbe by Sir Anthony van Dyck which overshot a £200,000-300,000 estimate and sold at £1.35m, and a recently-identified portrait of Anne of Hungary’s court fool by Jan Sanders van Hemessen that fetched £1.8m against a £400,000-600,000 estimate.
The overall total was for the auction was £52.5m (including premium) and the selling rate was a record for a Sotheby’s Old Master evening sale in London with 58 of the 68 lots (85.3%) finding buyers.
Earlier in the day, Sotheby’s posted a record for a drawing by Canaletto (1697 – 1768) when a well-preserved pen and brown ink study depicting the coronation of the Doge at the Doge’s Palace was knocked down at £2.2m to dealer Jean Luc Baroni.
It was one of a series of 12 depictions of Venice’s ceremonies and festivals that the artist made around 1735, and was the first example to appear at auction in over 40 years.
Although it sold below its £2.5m-3.5m estimate, the auctioneers’ worldwide head of Old Master drawings Greg Rubinstein said it was “ by far the most important drawing by Canaletto to have come to the market in recent decades, and one of the most illuminating and enlightening”.