How a Toga-Filled Biblical Scene By a Forgotten Artist Commanded $35.9 Million at Sotheby's

How a Toga-Filled Biblical Scene By a Forgotten Artist Commanded $35.9 Million at Sotheby's

In the same two-day period that a Modigliani sold for an all-time high of $68.9 million and a Matisse bronze made an unprecedented $48.8 million at auction, another artist record set for a relatively obscure Pre-Raphaelite painter, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was generally overlooked — although, in terms of sheer benchmark-setting swagger, it may have been the success of the week. Estimated to sell at $3-5 million, the painter's 1904 "The Finding of Moses" fetched an astonishing $35.9 million at Sotheby's 19th-century sale.

A revered superstar during his lifetime whose pictures commanded huge sums (at least from the point he settled in London in 1870), the Dutch-born Alma-Tadema ultimately fell into obscurity after his death in 1912, rudely dismissed for what he did best: painting Victorians in togas. Fluent in the mythology and history of ancient Rome and Greece, not to mention the Old Testament, Alma-Tadema took the biblical theme of "Exodus" and inserted his Cecil B. de Mille-like dressing for "The Finding of Moses."

On Thursday night, tug-of-war telephone bidding quickly pushed the price to $20 million, action that was followed by an otherwise unidentified Asian bidding in the salesroom who wound up as the underbidder, helping the final tally trump the high estimate by sevenfold. 

The roughly four-and-a-half-by-seven-foot painting was originally commissioned by John Aird, a wealthy British engineer who invited the artist to Egypt in 1902 to witness the unveiling of his massive masterpiece, the Aswan Dam, and ultimately paid Alma-Tadema a handsome sum of £5,250 in 1905 for the stunning composition of a famous Egyptian scene featuring the Pharaoh's beautiful, bejeweled daughter, her entourage of scantily clad maidens, and attending priests and servants heading for a bath in the Nile.

Up until Thursday, the picture had a horrid track record at auction. Aird's heirs sold the painting for just £820 in 1935 and about 25 years later, American television producer, Allen Funt, the creator of the wildly popular "Candid Camera" television show of the 1950s and 60s, purchased the painting for an undisclosed sum for his Victorian-styled Manhattan apartment in 1967 from a New York dealer, who had recently acquired the work for £3,600.Reportedly, the dealer asked the Brooklyn-born Funt if he wanted "to see a picture by the worst painter who ever lived."(By this time, the painting had failed to sell at a Christie's London auction in 1960, adding to its string of serial bad luck).

Funt, who majored in art history in college, eventually acquired 35 works in total by the artist, representing about 10 percent of the artist's entire oeuvre — but wound up putting the whole batch at auction in November 1973 at Sotheby's London after he discovered an accountant had fleeced him for over a million dollars. The entire group made the equivalent of $570,000, topped by "The Finding of Moses," which sold for $72,801. Earlier that year, as if adding insult to injury, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited the same trove in an exhibition entitled "Victorians in Togas: Paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema from the Collection of Allen Funt," in the short-lived expectation that the early television guru would donate some of the pieces to the museum.

The picture returned to the salesroom at Christie's New York in May 1995, where it regained some prestige, selling for a then-record $2.8 million, a sum that stood as the artist's top price until last Thursday. Though no one has identified the most recent purchaser, it is widely known that the artist and the Pre-Raphaelites in general appeal to so-called "Middle East taste": sexy but restrained.