Magritte masterpiece expected to sell for record £45m at auction

A masterpiece by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, described as one of the most desirable works in private hands, is expected to sell for a record-breaking £45m when it goes to auction for the first time this year.

Helena Newman, the chair of Sotheby’s Europa, said the “show-stopping” painting, L’empire des lumières, depicting a street at night underneath a bright blue sky, would be the star of an auction on London on 2 marzo.

The 114.5cm by 146cm work was painted in 1961 for Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet, a muse and close friend who had been introduced to the artist through her father, the Belgian surrealist collector Pierre Crowet. The family loaned it to the Magritte Museum in Brussels from 2009 per 2020.

Should the painting’s $60m (£45m) estimate be met, it would be the highest price paid for a work by Magritte, whose most famous paintings include La trahison des images (The treachery of images) of a pipe that is not a pipe. It is already one of the highest estimates for a work of art in Europe.

Crowet’s likeness is found in a number of Magritte works, and even some of those he painted before the two met. The artist told her after their first meeting when she was 16: "Tu vois, je te peignais déjà avant de te connaître" (You see, I was already painting you before I knew you).

Magritte, che è morto in 1967, played chess with Pierre Crowet at his favourite bistro and spent evenings with him and his wife, Georgette, watching Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies.

He had first started on L’empire des lumières in 1948, returning and enriching his vision of it over time, to leave behind 17 works, the only real attempt to create a “series” within Magritte’s oeuvre.

The first version of the painting was bought by Nelson Rockefeller with others now held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

The painting on sale is the largest horizontal version that Magritte did and depicts a suburban setting thought to be a street near the Parc Josaphat in Brussels, where the artist moved in 1954. The image is said to have provided inspiration for a scene in the 1973 film The Exorcist.

Before it is auctioned, the painting will be publicly exhibited in Sotheby’s galleries in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, New York and London.

Newman said: “A masterpiece of 20th-century art, L’empire des lumières brings together the two most fundamental elements of daily life – those of day and night – on to one paradoxical canvas. With its impressive scale, the cinematic painting draws the viewer into Magritte’s timeless world.

“Its immediacy and power encapsulate the ‘star quality’ that places Magritte firmly among the pantheon of the market’s most sought-after artists.”

Crowet, who was a Belgian tennis champion in 1955, went on to marry Baron Roland Gillion, a Belgian businessman. They have donated much of their art collection to the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Belgium.

Fino ad ora, the most expensive painting by Magritte is The Pleasure Principle, sold at Sotheby’s in November 2018 for $26.8m.

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