Spanish aristocrats go to war over £22m sale of Constable painting

Baroness says euro crisis forced her to get rid of heirloom – but relatives dispute claim

The sale of one of John Constable’s finest works, an idyllic depiction of rural Suffolk, has provoked a bitter dispute among members of one of Europe’s most flamboyant aristocratic families.

The Lock, painted in 1824, was sent for auction by Spanish socialite Barones s Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, who says she is a victim of Spain’s economic crisis and must sell the work to raise funds.

The Baroness, a former Miss Spain, owns four luxury villas as well as an art collection which includes eight Gauguins and a Picasso. But her decision has led to a family rift and the resignation of one of the trustees of her museum in Madrid.

Constable’s oil on canvas masterpiece went under the hammer at the Christie’s Old Master and British Paintings sale in London last night and went for £22.4 million to an unknown buyer - a record amount for the artist and among the top five prices ever paid for an Old Master in Britain.

The Lock is one of six large-scale canvases of the River Stour, also including The Hay Wain, that Constable exhibited to acclaim at the Royal Academy in London between 1819 and 1825. It was bought by the Baroness’ late husband, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, in 1990 for £10.8m, then a record for a British painting.

Its sale last night infuriated the Baroness’s step-daughter, Francesca Von Habsburg, who said her late father, a renowned art collector, would never have agreed to it. “The proposed sale is entirely self-serving and should not go ahead. She [the Baroness] likes to pretend she is a typical Spanish citizen who is struggling just like everyone else but that could not be further from the truth.”

The sale prompted Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions director at the Royal Academy, to resign as trustee of the Baroness’ Madrid museum. He said it was “morally shameful” and accused the 69-year-old Baroness, known as “Tita”, of having no understanding of either art history or art appreciation.

The billionaire Baron had agreed to cede his collection of 1,600 paintings to the Spanish state, upon his death, aged 81, in 2002. They are housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid.

However the Baroness, his fifth wife, kept 250 works worth £700m, including The Lock, in her private collection which she loans to Spanish museums without receiving any income. The Spanish government, currently securing a €100bn eurozone bail-out, rejected her request for state-funded compensation.

“This sale is a small inject ion of cash in my accounts,” said the Baroness, who owns a 175ft yacht and employs about 80 staff. “Keeping the collection here is costly to me, and I get nothing in return.”

“Tita” is battling on all fronts to preserve her late husband’s €2.5bn inheritance. Her son, Borja, who was adopted by the Baron, is suing her for a share of the art collection after mother and son argued over his choice of wife. As for Francesca’s claim that she is “isolated from reality”, the Baroness says: “Besides getting furious, she can’t do anything about it.”

The £22.4m sale price is likely to put The Lock beyond the means of a UK institution hoping to return the work to Britain.

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