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Flaming June Becomes Hottest Buy On Market
Godfrey Barker on the painting that Lloyd Webber could not afford in 1963
By Godfrey Barker
December 13, 2003
NO PICTURE has more of the art world in hot pursuit than Lord Leighton's Flaming June, left, the Victorian masterpiece that belonged for 40 years to Luis A. Ferre, the Governor of Puerto Rico.
Mr Ferre died aged 99 in October. He left a large art collection, much of it hanging in the Museo de Arte in Ponce. But his trophy is Flaming June - wanted by Lord Lloyd-Webber, Britain's leading collector of Victorian art whose exhibition at the Royal Academy closed yesterday; wanted by Isabel Goldsmith, John Schaeffer and Jerry Davis, the big hitters in this market; and wanted by every art collector who sees this as the most luscious Victorian painting.
Sotheby's and Christie's have visited Puerto Rico every year for two decades, lavishing lunches and dinners on Mr Ferre and trying, and failing, to persuade him to sell.
Lord Lloyd-Webber has played the piano and sung songs with Mr Ferre's art dealer, Carlos Conde. The composer - "I write music to buy art" - has sent a dozen emotional letters of appeal down the years and even offered Pounds 6 million for Flaming June in 1996, when the dreamy maiden appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy for a blockbuster Leighton exhibition. His offer wasn't the only one. All were turned down.
Mr Ferre, Puerto Rico's senior statesman for three decades, was a tough case.
Charming, smiling, he resisted more than 50 offers for the picture. A Christie's story has it that he was offered a blank cheque by one suitor - "just fill in what you want" - and solemnly tore it up.
Now his estate passes to his younger widow and to his many sons and daughters. All London assumes that Flaming June must now be for sale. "His lawyers have got to be under a fiduciary obligation to realise the highest value for his estate. That means sale," said one optimistic Bond Street dealer who is hot in the chase. But is it for sale?
One man can't wait. Lord Lloyd-Webber saw Flaming June in the shop window of a Polish frame-maker in Clapham in 1963 with a Pounds 50 price tag on it - and didn't buy it.
"I was 15. I didn't have Pounds 50," he told me. "I've been kicking myself ever since." Since his Pounds 6 million offer for it, Lord Lloyd-Webber has set another Victorian art record of Pounds 6.6 million at Christie's in June 2000, paid for Waterhouse's St Cecilia.
That has convinced the art world that he would now have to pay up to Pounds 14 million to lay hands on Flaming June.
From his sick bed Lord Lloyd-Webber's dealer in St James's, David Mason, talked yesterday of Flaming June as an unattainable Holy Grail. "I somehow can never believe that it will ever come up. If it did, I can't begin to guess what it would make. The art world's a crazy place at present. There are vast prices for anything special."
Leightons could be had for Pounds 200 in the 1930s when Victorian art was out of fashion and Flaming June ended up in a hairdresser's in Albemarle Street, Mayfair.
After Lord Lloyd-Webber missed it in Clapham, it fell to the Victorian picture-dealer Jeremy Maas, who tried to persuade every museum director in England to buy it - without success. It was Mr Maas who eventually sold it to the Governor of Puerto Rico, on which island it is now acknowledged as the thing the tourist must see.
Out in Puerto Rico, Carlos Conde was not speaking English yesterday when telephoned about it. A gallery spokesman yawned as deeply as the lady in the picture sleeps in the summer heat.