This stunning view of Venice was the finest work by JMW Turner to come to the market in living memory, but there were still dropped jaws when it sold for $35.9m (£20.5m). Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, which had been expected to make more than $20m, is now the most expensive British painting in the world, smashing the previous record of $21m (£12m) held by John Constable's The Lock since 1990.
The previous world record for a Turner painting was $9m in 1984 for Seascape, Folkestone. The Turner was sold yesterday at Christie's in New York by a not-for-profit organisation in the city, the St Francis of Assisi Foundation, which had received the painting as a donation from a private collector 14 years ago. The foundation will now use the sale proceeds to sustain its missionary work around the world. The painting was said to have been acquired by a private client who bid by telephone, but the identity of the buyer is not known.
Nicholas Hall, Christie's international director for old masters, who took the buyer's bids, said: "This is a great painting. It's an incredibly rare painting and it fully deserved to make this record for the artist which is more than three times the previous amount ever achieved by a Turner at auction.
"In my personal view, Turner is the greatest of all British artists. This was a perfectly preserved example of his work and an absolutely beautiful composition."
The painting has become the most expensive Old Master ever sold in New York, a record which previously stood at $35.2m (£20.1m) paid for Pontormo's Portrait of a Halberdier in May 1989.
The auctioneer James Bruce-Gardyne, taking bids in the tense auction room, admitted feeling relieved once the painting had beaten previous records. "Once people start, they go on," he said.
He added that he knew there were several people in the room who had been keen to bid but were immediately outpriced. "They never even got their hands up because the bidding went above them. It was very difficult to predict what the Turner would make because there was nothing to compare it with."
Mr Hall said he had never taken bids on the phone at such high prices before. He said: "What made it easier for me was that the buyer was clearly so enamoured of the painting and was really determined that I never felt that I had to sell the painting or push the bidding or anything."
The oil painting was one of three works of Venice painted for the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition of 1841 after the artist had made what proved to be his final visit to Italy, producing 150 watercolours. The work was purchased from that exhibition by Elhanan Bicknell for 250 guineas.
It was last seen at public auction in 1897, when it was sold by Christie's for 6,800 guineas. Since then, it has been sold privately twice by Agnew's, most recently in 1992 to a private collector who donated it in turn to the St Francis of Assisi Foundation in New York State.
It has been exhibited at the Royal Academy three more times since 1841, but had not been seen in London for 30 years until Christie's announced the sale.
1. JMW Turner, Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, $35.8m (£20.5 m), yesterday.
2. John Constable, The Lock, $21.1m, November 1990
3. Joshua Reynolds, Omai, $14.7m, November 2001
4. JMW Turner, Seascape, Folkestone, $10m, July 1984
5. John William Waterhouse, St Cecilia, $9.9m, June 2000
6. Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer staring into a Mirror, $8.9m, June 2005Reuse content