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Sold for over €71.4 million: Record price for Magritte's 1961 Empire of the Light

11:17 03/03/2022

One of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte’s most famous works sold in a London auction for a record €71.4m (€61.9m without auction fees) on Wednesday.

‘L'empire des lumières’ (The Empire of Light) is described as one of the most coveted works of art currently in private hands, VRT reports. It’s one of a series of 18 iconic paintings by the artist, depicting the paradoxical image of a nocturnal landscape beneath a sunlit sky.

The auction at Sotheby's in London featured a number of high-profile works by Picasso, Monet, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Banksy and Hirst, but the Magritte painting was the most eagerly-awaited of them all, and the auction house transformed its exterior to match the spirit of the artwork. 

The 1961 painting fetched €71,466,813 (€61,925,866 without auction fees), breaking the previous record for the Belgian painter’s ‘Le principe du plaisir’, which the same auction house sold for €23.9m in 2018. 

It’s also the second highest amount ever paid for a work of art in Europe. The identity of the buyer is not yet known.

Painting shows ‘poetic’ coexistence of day and night

The famous painting is of a darkened house viewed from the street and is thought to be inspired by a road near Josaphat Park in Schaerbeek, where Magritte (1898-1967) moved to in 1954. 

The facade of the house behind the trees, shrouded in darkness, is partly illuminated by a street lamp and lights from within, indicating that it’s night, while a blue sky with white clouds suggests daytime. 

“That juxtaposition of day and night is very poetic and it is typically surreal,” said Helena Newman of Sotheby's. “This cinematic work draws the viewer into Magritte's timeless world, as it were.”

Magritte himself once said: “This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and enchant us. I call that power: poetry. If I think that this evocation has such a poetic power, it is partly because I have always been very interested in the night and the day, without ever having felt a preference for one or the other.”

The artist painted the work for Anne-Marie Crowet, a muse and close friend who was introduced to Magritte at the age of 16 by her art collector father Pierre Crowet. She later married a businessman and they donated their Art Nouveau collection to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.  

‘L'empire des lumières’ had always remained in the hands of the family until now, although from 2009 to 2020, it was lent to the Magritte Museum in Brussels.  Copies of the painting can be viewed at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. 

Written by Helen Lyons