BEING CLEOPATRA: Alma-Tadema's Cleopatra sells for record prices

Monday, May 9, 2011

Alma-Tadema's Cleopatra sells for record prices

On May 5, 2011 Sotheby’s New York auctioned off The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1880-83) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (estimated $ 3m-5m). Well-received at its Grosvenor Gallery debut in 1882 and subsequently owned, but then forgotten by the distinguished old master collector Sir Joseph Robinson. The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra resurfaced in a 1958 Royal Academy show of the Robinson collection, only to be disposed by Robinson’s daughter Princess Labia at Sotheby’s London in 1962 for the then not inconsiderable sum of £2,000. Steadily rising in price throughout the next decades, the picture last appeared at auction at Christies in 1993, selling for £879,500 (estimated £280,000-£320,000; $1.3m).

From the beginning of the auction, bidding was brisk and rapid. Two phone bidders ferociously battled with a passion, one emerging victorious at $26m ($29m with buyer’s premium), the second-highest price for the artist, the first being the 1905 The Finding of Moses ($35m).

The Alma-Tadema moment was a sharp contrast to the lack-luster mood of the rest of the sale. Of the 66 lots offered, just over half (34) went unsold, and many that did sell went for far below estimate. Three classical subjects by Albert Moore, a far greater painter than his contemporary Alma-Tadema, elicited meager responses.

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