When the 29-year-old William Weddell acquired a marble statue of Venus in Rome in 1764, he paid the dealer Thomas Jenkins an astronomical but undisclosed sum. The most conservative contemporary account has it at £3,500 (plus a lifetime annuity) — a figure widely held to make her the most expensive antiquity sold to any Englishman in the 18th century. On her arrival at Newby Hall in Yorkshire, Weddell commissioned Robert Adam to design a grand neo-classical sculpture gallery — he had bought back 19 chests of antiquities — its centrepiece a domed rotunda conceived for the goddess herself.
Jenkins experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining permission to export the statue, despite excellent relations with Clement XIV, and it would never have been given at all if it were not for the 'fortunate Circumstances of it being a Naked female'. Last week, the Compton family of Newby Hall sold its once-prized Venus at Christie's for a world record price for any antiquity at auction — nearly £8 million — and it remains to be seen whether the new owners will be experiencing any difficulties attempting to export her.
The sale is a sad affair, a miserable rerun of the sale of Canova's 'Three Graces' from Woburn Abbey. What makes the case of the so-called Jenkins Venus far, far worse is the fact that here context is virtually all. The Venus is no straightforward piece of Roman statuary. When she was discovered in the cellars of the Barberini Palace she not only lacked the odd arm and leg but, rather critically, her head. The restorer, probably Cavaceppi (no mean sculptor in his own right), appears to have found her another one, antique of course, as well as filling in all the missing portions from limbs, toes, nose and buttocks. What we have is an extraordinary jigsaw that straddles the classical and the 18th-century worlds. As an antiquity it is of moderate importance, which is why the British Museum, which was approached before the sale (the V&A was not), had no interest in acquiring her.
As a reflection of 18th-century taste and its passion for ideal beauty, and as the apogee of one of Adam's most important conceptions, the Jenkins Venus is superlative. The loss is all the more acute because Newby's sculpture gallery is otherwise intact — and open to the public (Woburn's is used for corporate entertaining). Her place has to be taken by a cast. At Christie's meanwhile, denuded of this historical context and all its resonance. this Venus.seemed less than seductive.
Her charms were evidently apparent, however, to the two bidders duelling over her in the rooms. Christie's is keeping mum, but before the sale both the Getty Museum (which bought and lost the 'Three Graces') and Sheik Saud bin Mohamed alThani privately said they wanted her. Although best known as a collector of Islamic art for a projected museum in Qatar, the Sheik has been known to buy major classical antiquities and also has a penchant for grand Adam furniture. No doubt any British institution — the V&A or Leeds, perhaps, which has the Hope Venus — who aspired to buy the piece when, or if, it were export-stopped, is now reeling at the prospective cost.
The Newby sale looked all the sadder in contrast to the dispersal of works of art from Longleat House that followed. Here, the Marquess of Bath and the Longleat trustees instructed Christie's to raise in excess of £15 million on their behalf in order to set up a maintenance fund to secure the future of the estate, house and its core collections, the Marquess making it clear that he did not want anyone to notice that Christie's had ever been there. Instead of selling a single masterpiece, the 600 lots were drawn primarily from a collection that came to the house after the second world war supplemented by duplicates, smallerscale pieces presently overwhelmed by the scale and grandeur of the Italianate state rooms, pieces that posed conservation or display problems or were simply never shown at all. What resulted was a sale that was neither controversial nor dull — and which raised over £27 million.
Of course, Longleat was unusually fortunate in possessing duplicates of the calibre of the fabulous life-size Meissen porcelain animals created for Augustus the Strong's Japanese Palace in Dresden in 1731-35, which rank among the most remarkable porcelain sculptures ever created. The best of them here, a fox modelled by the incomparable Johann Kandler, became the most expensive piece of European porcelain ever sold at auction when it went to the Getty for just over £1 million; the turkey, sold for over £800,000, is likewise destined for LA.
There was even something for a British public collection: watercolours by Thomas Rowlandson and others of the Isle of Wight were sold prior to the sale to the island's museum. As for the Venus, her sale was expected to raise £2 million–£3 million to fund the restoration of the stableblock designed by Henry Belwood. A case of confused priorities perhaps?