Angelina Jolie sells rare painting of Winston Churchill for record $11.5 million

Winston Churchill's one of the most famous landscape paintings, "The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque", that was owned by Angelina Jolie's family, sold at auction on Monday for more than $11.5 million, breaking the previous record for a work by Britain's World War II leader.
March 03, 2021 | 15:58
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The history of "The Tower of Koutoubia Mosque"

Angelina Jolie sells rare painting of Winston Churchill for record $11.5 million
"The Tower of Koutoubia Mosque," a gift for former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the only painting Churchill made during World War II. The work is now the most expensive Churchill painting to sell at auction. Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Churchill, a keen artist, took inspiration from the Moroccan city and painted "The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque" oil work during a World War II visit in 1943.

He gave the finished article to fellow wartime leader, US president Franklin Roosevelt.

Auction house Christie's called it "Churchill's most important work".

"Aside from its distinguished provenance, it is the only landscape he made" during the war, it added.

The work eventually found its way into the hands of actress Angelina Jolie, who recently put it up for sale.

After frenzied bidding, much of it carried out over the phone, the gavel eventually came down at £7 million, smashing the pre-sale expectations of £1.5 to £2.5 million.

Two more of his paintings also went under the hammer, with the three works together fetching £9.43 million.

A career army officer before entering politics, Churchill started to paint relatively late, at the age of 40.

His passion for the translucent light of Marrakesh, far from the political storms and drab skies of London, dates back to the 1930s when most of Morocco was a French protectorate.

He went on to make six visits to the North African country over the course of 23 years.

"Here in these spacious palm groves rising from the desert the traveller can be sure of perennial sunshine... and can contemplate with ceaseless satisfaction the stately and snow-clad panorama of the Atlas Mountains," he wrote in 1936 in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper.

He would set up his easel on the balconies of the grandiose La Mamounia hotel or the city's Villa Taylor, beloved by the European jet set of the 1970s.

It was from the villa, after a historic January 1943 conference in Casablanca with Roosevelt and France's Charles de Gaulle, that he painted what came to be regarded as his finest work, of the minaret behind the ramparts of the Old City, with mountains behind and tiny colourful figures in front.

"You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakesh," he is reputed to have told Roosevelt. "I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains."

A newspaper photograph taken at the time shows the two wartime Allied leaders admiring the sunset.

After the US delegation had left, Churchill stayed on an extra day and painted the view of the Koutoubia Mosque framed by the mountains.

He sent it to Roosevelt for his birthday.

"This is Churchill's diplomacy at its most personal and intense," said Christie's head of modern British and Irish art, Nick Orchard.

"It is not an ordinary gift between leaders. This is soft power, and it is what the special relationship is all about."

A second Churchill landscape, "Scene in Marrakesh", painted on his first visit to Morocco in 1935, earlier sold for £1.5 million.

That was painted while on a stay at Mamounia, where he marvelled at the "truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives", in a letter to his wife Clementine.

"The Tower of Koutoubia Mosque", a Jolie Family collection, breaks the auction record

Angelina Jolie sells rare painting of Winston Churchill for record $11.5 million
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought some significant pieces of art when they were together (Photo: The Reuters)

The work, "Tower of Koutoubia Mosque," was sold March 1 by the Jolie Family Collection and features the long shadows and warm tones of a sunset in Marrakech, Morroco -- a favorite subject of Churchill's to paint.

"Churchill first visited Morocco in 1935 where he fell in love with the quality of light there," said Nick Orchard, head of modern British art at Christie's in London, where the auction took place. "He felt that his paintings of the country were among his best."

The sale more than tripled its high estimate of £2.5 million ($3.5 million). Churchill's previous record was £1.7 million ($2.7 million) in 2014 at Sotheby's London.

According to a source with knowledge of sale, actor Brad Pitt bought Churchill's sunset scene as a gift to Jolie in 2011. The couple separated in 2016 after two years of marriage.

Jolie's former partner Brad Pitt is known to be an avid art collector and, during their marriage, the couple bought some notable works, including some by Banksy and Neo Rauch.

Pitt purchased the painting from antiques dealer Bill Rau, who previously told CNN President Roosevelt's son had sold the piece to a filmmaker in the 1960s. According to Rau, the painting eventually ended up in New Orleans, where it was kept in a local family's closet for more than five decades before a family member contacted his gallery, M.S. Rau.

"The painting depicts the very moment the two world leaders shared as they viewed the majestic landscape of Marrakech as the sun set over the Atlas Mountains, and to know Churchill gifted the painting to FDR after their time together excited me even more," Rau said.

Churchill began painting well into adulthood, around age 40, following a failed naval attack during World War I that cost him his title of First Lord of the Admiralty. Nevertheless, he was prolific, producing over 500 works in his lifetime, according to CNN.

"Tower of Koutoubia Mosque" is the only painting that Churchill made between 1939 and 1945, during World War II.

In January of 1943, after jointly attending the Casablanca Conference in Morroco to strategize against Nazi Germany, Churchill convinced Roosevelt to join him in nearby Marrakech and watch the sun drop behind the Atlas Mountains. Their brief sojourn together was memorialized by the painting, which Churchill created the very next day following Roosevelt's departure. After the conference, the two leaders demanded "unconditional surrender" from Germany, Italy and Japan -- a historic declaration that had a far-reaching impact on the war.

The market for the former prime minister's art only continues to grow. In addition to "Tower of Koutoubia Mosque," two other works of his overperformed at the Christie's "Modern British Art" evening sale.

"Scene at Marrakech," another light-filled composition of Churchill's favorite place, went for close to £1.9 million ($2.6 million), and "St Paul's Churchyard," sold at nearly £1.1 million ($1.5 million). Both sale prices were more than triple their high estimates.

"The appetite for Winston Churchill's artwork was demonstrated to great effect at Christie's," Orchard said.

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