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

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

But Maddalena Giacente (Recumbent Magdalene) – originally commissioned by the then British prime minister, Lord Liverpool – became an art world “sleeping beauty” as her authorship was gradually forgotten and her whereabouts became unknown.

Until 2002, when it was identified after it sold in a garden statuary auction for a mere £ 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, long-lost masterpiece has been found, 200 years after its completion,” said Dr Mario Guderzo, a leading Canova scholar and former director of the Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova. “This work has been searched for by scholars for decades, so the discovery is of fundamental importance for the history of collecting and the history of art.”

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

Their rediscovery “brings to a conclusion a very particular story worthy of a novel, of a marble of significant historical value and great aesthetic beauty produced by Canova in the final years of his artistic activity,” Guderzo said.

The story of the Recumbent Magdalene 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, Liverpool’s title and estate – including the Canova sculpture, were passed to his brother Charles, the third Earl of Liverpool, after whose death the sculpture was auctioned by Christie’s almost exactly 170 years ago, in 1852.

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

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

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

The lost chapter continued until 2002 when the present owners heard rumors that their sculpture could be the highly sought-after Canova marble. They contacted Francis Outred, an art adviser, whose team uncovered its missing history.

Canova is cherished by art historians and collectors for his compositional talents and in his ability to translate those compositions into marble.

Writing about the Recumbent Magdalene in 1819, he said: “I exhibited another model of a second Magdalene lying on the ground, and almost fainting from the excessive pain of her penitence, a subject that I like very much, and that has earned me a lot of indulgence, and very flattering praise. “

One of these admirers was the Irish writer and poet Thomas Moore, who wrote that Canova “took me to see his last Magdalen, which is divine: she is lying recumbent in all the abandonment of grief; and the expression of her face di lei, and the beauty of her figure di lei… are perfection. “

Donald Johnson, Christie’s international head of sculpture, said the rediscovery was “a highlight within my 30-plus-year career in the field”.

He said: “This sculpture represents an extensively documented commission from a major figure in British history, the prime minister Lord Liverpool, whose purchase of the Magdalene is a testament to the love that British collectors had always show for the work of the great neo- classical sculptor Antonio Canova. “

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