The National Gallery of Art has just purchased Bernardo Bellotto’s “The Fortress of Königstein” from Bruno Meissner for $9.6 million (£6.4million), the most expensive Old Master painting purchased by the gallery since Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’Benci” bought for around $6 million from the Prince of Liechtenstein in 1967.
One of the most monumental and impressive works by the artist, Meissner had bought the canvas at Sotheby’s London on 11 December 1991 for £3.1 million ($5,728,800 hammer price), a little below expectations. At the time of the auction, it was believed that the wide expanse of sky had been skinned; in fact the original sky was in remarkably fine condition, the skinned appearance due to discoloured overpaint.
In contrast to his contemporaries Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, Bellotto’s crisper and more incisive works are rare. Although he produced Venetian and Italian vedute his views of Poland and Germany are the most sought after, although most of them are in the Dresden Museum and National Museum in Warsaw. Representative examples of some recently on the market are a pair of views of Vaprio and Canonicha, sold at Christie’s in December 1991 for £1.9 million the pair, $4,421,900 hammer price; and Walter Chrysler’s “Architectural capriccio with a self-portrait” sold at Sotheby’s New York in June 1989 to Muck Flick for $1.7 million. The National Gallery, Washington, already owns two smaller views of the “The Castle of Nymphenburg” and “A view of Munich”, donated by the Kress Foundation in 1961, but these are less “important”, being replicas of originals now in the Residenzmuseum, Munich.
The Bellotto “Königstein” is one of five large-scale views of the Saxon fort, commissioned by Frederick Augustus II of Saxony around 1756. Two others from the series are in the Manchester City Art Gallery, the remaining two are untraced. The canvas bought by Washington was sent to Sotheby’s by the executors of the Countess Beauchamp. There were some murmurs of interest from the National Gallery, London, and it will be interesting to see whether an export licence will be withheld. The Alte Pinakothek in Munich was also rumoured to be a potential buyer at one time. When Meissner exhibited the picture at the International Fine Art Dealers’ Fair in New York this past autumn it was shown to Jayne Wrightsman who reportedly disliked the picture because it “wasn’t pretty enough”.
She had bought a lesser work by the artist “Pirna: the Obertor from the south” (an autograph replica of a larger canvas in Dresden) for the Metropolitan from London dealer Derek Johns several months before for around $3 million).
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bellotto’s “Königstein” bought for $9.6 million'