Top Selling Female

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These days restoration is a hotly debated subject and restorers go to great pains to make sure that the public can see what is original and what they have done. When the temples of Abu Simbel were cut up and re-erected to escape the water of the Aswan Dam, the restorers carefully grouted all the joins so as to make it obvious that the reconstructed statues were made of blocks of stone. Personally I wish that they had restored them to perfect condition, replacing the fallen head of the third statue, but I recognise that any such action would have raised howls of protest from the “let it all hang out” school of thought.

In earlier years people had a more cavalier – and, I would say, more aesthetic – approach to restoration. A typical case is the so-called “Jenkins Venus”, acquired in Rome in the mid-eighteenth century by the British dealer Thomas Jenkins. When found, the statue, which depicts a naked woman coyly holding her hands to hide her breasts and groin, was without a head; the right arm was completely missing and so was the left forearm. The lower right leg was missing and the poor girl had lost part of one buttock.

Jenkins called in Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, the leading restorer in Rome. Cavaceppi had a head in stock that he thought would fit. Unfortunately it was the head of a veiled woman, but Cavaceppi got out his chisels and carved away the veil, turning it into an elaborate coiffure. Otherwise the head was perfect apart from the nose, but a little bit of work on a scrap of stone that was lying around the studio soon cured that.

Next Cavaceppi turned his attention to the missing limbs of the goddess. A new right arm was created and glued in place: we presume it was originally hiding Venus’ breasts, but that is only a guess on Cavaceppi’s part and he may have been influenced by contemporary mores. Right leg, left arm and buttock were “repaired” and a marble base was constructed.

There are plenty of armless, headless (and even legless) Greek and Roman statues filling the world’s museums. There is only one Jenkins Venus, a voluptuous depiction of the goddess of love, so beautiful that she inspires love in all who see her. William Weddell, a British collector, saw her and promptly fell in love with her. Jenkins, an astute businessman, saw the gleam in Weddell’s eye and doubled his price. The infatuated collector paid without demur the highest price ever paid for any antiquity taken from Rome to England.

Every man likes to show off his beautiful wife or girl-friend (hence the somewhat objectionable term “trophy wife” as a name for a young second wife acquired by a successful businessman) and Weddell was no exception. Although he owned Newby Hall, one of England’s stately homes, it was not good enough for his new love. As soon as he returned to Britain he commissioned Robert Adam, a leading Neo-Classical architect, to design a suitable setting for the goddess. Following the rage for all things classical, Adam designed a round building based on Rome’s Pantheon, decorated inside in imitation of the Temple of Venus in Rome.

There the Jenkins Venus stood, shivering, no doubt, in the chill northern winters, until this year. Meanwhile Newby Hall passed through several hands, for Weddell himself died childless and others found themselves unable to cope with the extortionate Inheritance Tax demanded by a succession of governments. The latest owner, a member of the Compton family, found that the hall needed extensive repairs which, as a listed building, were twice as expensive as ordinary repairs.

He simply did not have the money and reluctantly put the Jenkins Venus up for sale at Christie’s. Their art experts valued the statue at two to three million pounds, which would pay for a lot of repairs and leave a nice little nest-egg over for a holiday in Majorca and the inevitable further repairs.

On June 13 Jenkins’ Venus stood shyly in front of the crowd of bidders while the auctioneer prepared to work the crowd up to the higher of the expert’s estimates. Within minutes of the bidding starting the price had reached the two million mark and the eager bidders showed no sign of flagging – one or two of them may have had gleams in their eyes! Three million, and still the bids were coming. Four million; the auctioneer gulped and mentally calculated the house percentage. Five million and only a couple of the bidders had fallen out. Six million: the bids were coming more slowly now, with significant pauses before the few remaining bidders flicked a finger to indicate another one or two hundred thousand pounds.

At seven million the bidding stalled and everyone held their breath, then one of the men down the front raised his finger and the unbelieving auctioneer began his chant. “Seven million and two hundred thousand pounds I am bid. Seven million and two hundred thousand once; seven million and two hundred thousand twice; seven million and two hundred thousand thrice – sold.”

On top of the bid price there is something known as the Buyer’s Premium, which raises the price paid for Jenkins’ Venus to £7,926,650 making her the most expensive antique ever sold at public auction. Who says sex doesn’t sell?

 November 2002

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