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Why this 30cm ostrich sculpture sold at auction for £1.8m in house record for Cheffins




When the hammer came down, it brought to an end a breathless auction that had seen the price soar in a way its subject never could.

For a private bidder in the room at Cheffins’ Fine Art Sale in Cambridge on Thursday April 22 had agreed to pay £1,824,540 for this mannerist sculpture of an ostrich.

An ostrich by Italian scupltor Giambologna which sold for £1,824,540 at a Cheffins Fine Art sale
An ostrich by Italian scupltor Giambologna which sold for £1,824,540 at a Cheffins Fine Art sale

At 30cm tall, that represents £60,818 per centimetre – about the same as Arsenal paid per centimetre for Thierry Henry.

The flightless bird had been expected to go for between £80,000 and £120,00. But a battle between a handful of bidders meant the price went skywards.

In the end, the bidding war came down to two – a European trade buyer on the telephone and one determined individual, with deep pockets, in the room, who eventually won – resulting in a new house record for Cheffins.

So what was it that led the buyer to fork out such an extraordinary sum for this piece?

Key to the sale was its provenance. The ostrich was hatched in the workshop of celebrated Renaissance sculptor Giambologna (1529-1608).

The ostrich had been expected to fetch £80,000-£120,000. Picture: Jeremy Pembrey
The ostrich had been expected to fetch £80,000-£120,000. Picture: Jeremy Pembrey

It has been held in a private collection for more than 180 years and was previously purchased from the Horace Walpole collection at Strawberry Hill.

Detailed in A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole in 1774, was bought by Walpole – the English writer, art historian and Whig politician – between 1765 and 1766, having been created by the workshop of Giambologna between the late 16th century and early 17th century. It was then sold at the ‘Great Sale’ of Strawberry Hill in 1842, some 45 years after Walpole’s death, to John Dunn-Gardner of Suffolk, who at the time styled himself as the Earl of Leicester.

At that time, it went for the sum of 50 pounds and eight shillings – and it has remained in the family’s collection ever since.

Martin Millard, director at Cheffins, who took the sale, said: “This is a fantastic result and is indicative of the importance of this mannerist sculpture, as well as the ongoing popularity of early 17th- century works of art.

“Whilst the family always knew they were in possession of something significant, it was following extensive research that we were able to trace the ostrich back to the Horace Walpole Collection at Strawberry Hill.

Martin Millard, Director at Cheffins, on the rostrum at auction
Martin Millard, Director at Cheffins, on the rostrum at auction

“This exceptional provenance ensured that the piece drew worldwide attention, with a series of both private and trade buyers coming to view the sculpture ahead of the sale.”

The work is one of only three known examples of the model, with the other two currently held by The Louvre in Paris and Cambridge’s own Fitzwilliam Museum. The similar model, held by the Louvre, was first documented in 1689 and had previously been part of the French royal collection, before it was donated to the museum in 1881 by Adolphe Thiers, the president of France.

Another model was sold for £260 at the EL Paget sale at Sotheby’s, London, in 1949, when it was purchased by Lieutenant Colonel the Honourable Mildmay Thomas Boscawen, who left the sculpture to the Fitzwilliam Museum following his death in 1958.

Thomas Gainsborough's first self-portrait, which sold for £116,460 at a Cheffins Fine Art sale
Thomas Gainsborough's first self-portrait, which sold for £116,460 at a Cheffins Fine Art sale

Meanwhile, another highlight of the two-day sale was the earliest known self-portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), one of the most important and influential painters of 18th-century England.

It sold for £116,460 to a London-based buyer on the telephone.

The picture, which carried a pre-sale estimate of £40,000 to £60,000, is also believed to be one of Gainsborough’s earliest attempts at painting in oil and likely to have been made soon after he moved from his native Sudbury in Suffolk to London at the age of 13 in 1740.

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