'Recumbent Magdalene' by Antonio Canova.

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I refer to Recumbent Magdalene by Antonio Canova (1757-1822).

At the time, I tried to contact the buyer, but heard that the sculpture might already have been sold on – possibly to a buyer in the US.

Since then, I have tried to locate the sculpture but so far to no avail.

There has been much controversy over the years about this missing Magdalene, particularly as Canova made another, more famous, figure of the subject kneeling.

By now, any thoughts of possible financial or professional advantage have been eclipsed by the fear that an unrecognised masterpiece might perhaps be suffering some damage where it is, or remain unknown for ever.

The sculpture was unsold at Summers Place Auctions (originally Sotheby’s Sussex) in Billingshurst in September 2001 and later sold in May 2002 for £4400. Only a few days later it was identified as the missing Canova Magdalene.

The figure was made for Lord Liverpool, the Duchess of Devonshire’s brother-in-law, who wrote that Canova should not do “too holy a figure” as he was a great admirer of female beauty!

I heard that it had been put up for sale at Billingshurst by someone who had bought it from a convent, whose nuns were said to be embarrassed by the semi-nudity.

Sotheby’s earlier this year confirmed the identification. As you can see from the Sotheby’s catalogue cutting (above), it was sold in weathered condition, but the condition of the marble was still very good. My worry is that it may have been kept outside and perhaps will deteriorate further if not rescued.

There has been much conjecture over the years about this missing sculpture, and many people in the art world will be interested to learn of its discovery.

Hilary Chelminski

Via email

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