J.M.W. Turner painting fetches $54 million at London auction

A painting by J.M.W. Turner sold for $54 million today, breaking records for the sale of paintings by the artist. Turner is in the spotlight, more than 150 years after his death, with the sale and a highly anticipated biopic, Mr. Turner, being released in Canada this month.

Auction price exceeds pre-sale estimates of $37 million by close to 50%

Sotheby's auction house employees pose for photographs with the J. M. W. Turner oil on canvas Rome, from Mount Aventine in London. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

A major oil painting by J.M.W. Turner sold Wednesday for $54 million at Sotheby's in London, the auction house said, breaking a previous record for the artist. 

The sale comes amid renewed interest in one of Britain's greatest artists, sparked by an acclaimed film biopic.

Described by auction house Sotheby's as one of the greatest masterpieces of British art still in private hands, Turner's 1835 work Rome, from Mount Aventine was estimated to sell for more than $36 million. The final sale price was almost more than 50 per cent more than the estimate. 

Every brush stroke is visible 

"There are fewer than 10 major Turners in private hands known today and this work must rank as one of the very finest," said Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department.

"The picture is so well preserved that every fingerprint of the artist, every flick of his brush, every scrape of his palette knife can still be clearly seen."

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in the biopic Mr. Turner, about the artist's life . (Simon Mein/Sony Pictures Classics)

Turner overturned 19th Century conventions, challenging the boundaries of realism and abstraction with a boldness that foreshadowed Impressionists such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Artist winning new generation of admirers

The sale is timely, coming shortly before the release of a film of Turner's life by Mike Leigh which saw actor Timothy Spall win the best actor prize from the New York Film Critics Circle earlier this week. Spall was also named best actor at the Cannes film festival for his portrayal of the artist in Mr. Turner.

An exhibition of his later works is currently on show at London's Tate gallery. Consequently the artist is winning a new generation of admirers more than 150 years after his death. 

The painting has only changed hands once before, when it was bought in 1878 by Archibald Primrose, the Earl of Rosebery, who later became British prime minister.

Its sister painting, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino, sold for $52.9 million in 2010, a previous record for the artist, when it was bought by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, far eclipsing its pre-sale expectations of $21.3 million.

With files from Reuters