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Australian Financial Review

The Maiden's Voyage

By Terry Ingram

January 23, 2004
Copyright ©2004 John Fairfax Holdings Limited. All rights reserved.

Sold for a song, the greatest prize available to the Victorian picture market may be set loose.

She is known as the Mona Lisa of the western hemisphere.

Lord Lloyd Webber ("I write songs to buy art") has visited Puerto Rico to play the piano and sing songs for her owner in the hope of wooing her from him.

Top brass from Sotheby's and Christie's have visited the US territory repeatedly in an identical pursuit.

But Luis A. Ferre, who bought Lord Leighton's sensuous painting Flaming June for a song in 1963 and built a museum in Ponce around her, fiercely resisted.

But now, according to the Puerto Rico Herald, what is possibly the greatest trophy available to the Victorian picture market may be set loose. Ferre has died and, according to the report, the lawyers could be under a fiduciary obligation to obtain the highest value for the estate.

That means, according to Godfrey Barker who broke the story, that it will probably be sold.

If so, it will open another exciting chapter in the work's remarkable history and show up the vagaries of the art market, especially the dangers of buying contemporary art when it is on a high.

And if price expectations are met it will provide an enduring tribute to a very popular piece of subject matter a woman in a brightly coloured dress.

The painting of a slumbering maiden in a bright orange dress also seen as an abstract evocation of mood was the talk of the Royal Academy in London in 1895.

But like all high Victorian art it slipped into obscurity. After World War II, influential writer and critic Roger Fry derided the art in favour of the post-Impressionists.

Art museums sold off this art or relegated it to the basements. In 1963 Flaming June appeared on a market trader's stall in Chelsea and later in the window of a Polish frame-maker in London's Clapham or Battersea.

The 15-year-old Lloyd Webber, already with a taste for art, could not find the ££50 needed to buy the canvas, which changed hands several times a hairdresser owned it for a while before being bought by London dealer Jeremy Maas. But even Maas had difficulty finding a serious buyer at a respectable price. But Ferre took to her and it became the leading attraction in the museum he built across the island from Puerto Rico's capital.

Many art lovers, including the writer, have taken a group taxi across the island just to see her, although she has become very familiar in recent years through reproduction on postcards, writing pads and record sleeves.

The work should break the auction record for a Victorian painting set by Lloyd Webber when he gave ££6.6 million ($15.6 million) for John William Waterhouse's St Cecilia at Christie's in London in 2000.

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