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Former Beaverbrook gallery works fetch $8.5-million (U.S.)

Detail of "A Grand View of the Sea Shore" by Claude-Joseph Vernet

Three Old Master paintings previously held by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton sold at auction Thursday for a total of almost $8.5-million (U.S.) - each work going for considerably more than the pre-sale estimate, and one setting an auction record.

All three works were consigned to Sotheby's New York by the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation, which last September gained clear title to them as part of an out-of-court settlement. The foundation, representing the estate of Max Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook, had been in a bitter, long-running dispute with the Fredericton gallery over the ownership of 133 works in the gallery's permanent collection.

The gallery, founded by Lord Beaverbrook in 1959, argued that it owned the art, while the foundation said the works held in Fredericton were on loan. Last fall's settlement awarded 48 works to the foundation.

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The record-setter at the Sotheby's sale was an epic 1776 seascape by French master Claude-Joseph Vernet, A Grand View, selling for $7,026,500, including buyer's premium. The work, an impressive 162.6-cm-by-261-cm oil on canvas, commissioned by British prime minister William Petty, had a pre-sale estimate of $1.5- to $2-million.

The previous auction record for a single Vernet was $2.075-million, set by Sotheby's London in July, 2007, for a work smaller than A Grand View of the Sea Shore Enriched with Buildings, Shipping and Figures, the record-setter's full title.

The other Beaverbrook consignments, two late-15th-century paintings attributed to Sandro Botticelli and his studio, outperformed expectations: While each had a pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $200,000, Christ Carrying the Cross and The Resurrection went for $722,500 and $662,500, respectively, including buyer's premium.

Attending the sale was Bernard Riordon, director of the Beaverbrook gallery. He said it's unlikely the Botticellis and the Vernet will return to Fredericton as a gift. Before the auction, the gallery approached several Canadian collectors to see whether one of them might be interested in bidding on the works, perhaps with an eye to donating or loaning them to the gallery.

None of the collectors made a firm commitment, and it's not known whether any, in fact, bid Thursday. Riordon said he believes the new owner of the Vernet is an American private collector and he hopes to "make some approaches [to the owner]to loan it to the gallery from time to time."

Details of the settlement between the U.K. foundation and the Fredericton gallery are confidential, but it's believed that some of the proceeds from Thursday's auction will go to the gallery to help cover the estimated $8- to $10-million (Canadian) it spent battling the foundation.

Both an arbitrator and an appeal panel ruled earlier that the foundation should cover costs.

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