Proceeds from the sale of a painting by Pablo Picasso at Christie’s London are to help pay for a new research centre at the University of Sydney in a highly unusual example of an anonymous benefactor insisting that the gift be sold immediately for a specific purpose.
The painting, “Jeune Fille Endormie”, a 1935 portrait of Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, is expected to fetch up to £12m.
The work has not been seen in public since 1941 and is described by the auction house as “an absolute jewel of a painting”.
Another Picasso portrait of Marie-Thérèse, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”, is the most expensive work of art to be sold at auction, fetching $106.5m (£65.8m) at Christie’s last year.
The money raised from Tuesday night’s auction will go towards a A$400m (£260m) multi-disciplinary research centre for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular research, which will bring together philosophers, dieticians, physiologists and economists.
Christie’s said that it was “exceptionally rare” for public institutions such as universities to be bound to sell valuable works of art because of conditions imposed by a benefactor.
The donor made it a legally binding condition of the gift that the painting be sold and the proceeds donated to an unspecified scientific research project.
“By giving to the university in this way, our donor underlined the fact that our many generous supporters can have confidence that benefactions will be used wisely,” said Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of Sydney university.
Dr Spence, who has flown to London for the auction, described the donation as an “extraordinary act of generosity”.
He said that the overseas donor flew to Australia “carrying the painting in hand luggage” to deliver it personally to the university.
The donor also presented 10 more paintings and items of jewellery to Sydney university.
In 2007 Christie’s sold a painting by Francis Bacon, owned by the Royal College of Art for £8m, which was used to help pay for a new college building in Battersea. The artist had given the work to the college as rent for the use of a studio in 1969.
In 1994, an Assyrian frieze, which had been unearthed in Iraq during the 19th century, was rediscovered during the renovation of the tuck shop at Canford School, a private school in Dorset.
The frieze was subsequently sold at the auction house for £7m.
The funds from the sale enabled the school to construct a new theatre, sports centre and boarding houses as well as supporting an extensive programme of scholarships.
The Picasso painting under auction was formerly in the collection of the industrialist and philanthropist Walter P. Chrysler Jr, who did much to help promote the artist after meeting him in 1919.
It was lent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its retrospective of the artist’s work in 1939.
Dr Spence admitted that he was hoping for “a little more” than the auction house’s high estimate of £12m.
“It is a very accessible picture, it has this extraordinary lyricism, and it is in superb condition,” Dr Spence said.
“I would keep it if we could. But then again I wouldn’t, because the proceeds from its sale are going to transform lives, and that is a very exciting thing,” he added.
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