A Canova statue misplaced for many years in an English backyard and purchased for £5,200 is promoting for £8million at Christie’s London


The focus of this July’s Christie’s Classic Week auctions in London is a rediscovered marble statue by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, executed in the artist’s final year. Should the work fetch anywhere within its estimate of £5 million to £8 million, that would represent a premium of at least 1,000 times its last selling price, when it was bought for just £5,200 at a garden statues auction in London in 2002.

Maddalena Giacente (Recumbent Magdalene) (1819-22) was commissioned by then British Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool. It depicts Mary Magdalene “in a state of ecstasy,” according to a Christie’s press release. Canova died in October 1822, a month before his extradition to Jenkinson. On the Prime Minister’s death in 1828 it passed to his family and was featured in several major public exhibitions across Britain before being sold with the Witley Court mansion. At this point the attribution of the statue to Canova was lost.

Recumbent Maddalena (Recumbent Magdalena) (1819-22) by Antonio Canova. Courtesy of Christie’s

The work was then sold three times, including in the 1930s to Violet Van der Elst, an anti-death penalty activist in Britain. It was taken in the garden of Van der Elst’s home in Addison Road, Kensington, where it is known to have remained after the property was sold to a local art dealer in 1959. It is said to have been sold again along with the house in the late 1960s.

The current owners, the Financial Times reported as a British couple, contacted London-based consultant Francis Outred, who led a team that made the discovery. A condition report states that a crucifix on the figure’s shoulder is now largely missing, but the work is otherwise in “very good” condition.

“This work has been sought after by scholars for decades, so its discovery is fundamental to the history of collecting and art history,” says Mario Guderzo, a leading Canova researcher and former director of the Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova in Possagno, Italy. A plaster model of the work from 1819 is kept in the museum.

The work will be exhibited at Christie’s London this weekend, followed by a tour to New York (April 8-13) and Hong Kong (May 27-June 1). The sale coincides with the 200th anniversary of Canova’s death.