Long-lost Canova sculpture bought for couple’s garden could fetch £8m | Sculpture

It was one of the last marble sculptures made by the great Italian artist Antonio Canova before his death in 1822 and depicts Mary Magdalene in a state of mourning.

But Maddalena Giacente (Reclining Magdalene) – originally commissioned by then British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool – became a ‘sleeping beauty’ of the art world as her paternity was gradually forgotten and we no longer know where she is.

Until 2002, when it was identified after being sold at a garden statue auction for just £5,200, it was revealed on Thursday. It is now valued for sale between £5m and £8m.

“It is a miracle that Antonio Canova’s exceptional and long-lost masterpiece has been found, 200 years after its completion,” said Dr. Mario Guderzo, eminent Canova scholar and former director of the Museo Gypsotheca. Antonio Canova. “This work has been sought by scholars for decades, so the find is of fundamental importance to the history of the collection and the history of art.”

The sculpture will be auctioned by Christie’s this summer. Its sellers have not been named but are believed to be a British couple who bought it to decorate their garden.

Their rediscovery “concludes a very special story worthy of a novel, a marble of great historical value and great aesthetic beauty produced by Canova in the last years of his artistic activity”, Guderzo said.

The story of the Reclining Magdalen begins in 1819 when it was commissioned by Liverpool, whose interest and influence in the arts is best exemplified by the founding of the National Gallery under his government.

After his death in 1828, the title and estate of Liverpool, including Canova’s sculpture, passed to his brother Charles, the third Earl of Liverpool, after whose death the sculpture was auctioned by Christie’s there is almost exactly 170 years old, in 1852.

In 1856 it was part of the collection of Lord Ward, later Earl of Dudley, who exhibited it in London and Manchester. After Ward’s death his estate and collection passed to his son who, at a time of personal tragedy in 1920, sold his house, Witley Court, and its contents to Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet maker. It was at this point that the attribution to Canova appears to have been lost, Christie’s said.

Detail of one of the hands. Photography: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Subsequent owners included Violet van der Elst, an eccentric entrepreneur and campaigner who was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in England.

The lost chapter continued until 2002, when the current owners heard rumors that their sculpture might be the highly sought after Canova marble. They contacted Francis Outred, an artistic adviser, whose team discovered his missing story.

Canova is cherished by art historians and collectors for his compositional skills and his ability to translate these compositions into marble.

Writing of the recumbent Magdalen in 1819, he said: “I have exhibited another model of a second Magdalen lying on the ground, and almost fainting from the excessive pain of her penance, a subject which I am very fond of, and which earned me a great deal of indulgence and very flattering praise.

One such admirer was the Irish writer and poet Thomas Moore, who wrote that Canova “brought me to see his last Madeleine, which is divine: she lies in all the abandonment of grief; and the expression of her face, and the beauty of her figure… is perfection.

Donald Johnson, Christie’s Global Head of Sculpture, said the rediscovery was “a highlight of my 30+ year career in the field”.

He said: ‘This sculpture represents a widely documented commission from a major figure in British history, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, whose purchase of the Madeleine is a testament to the love British collectors have always shown for the work of the great neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova.

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