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“I can’t deny the company has been offered to me. We are in negotiations, but we haven’t yet got a deal. I can’t confirm anything as yet,” said Mr Bernheimer, who has a gallery in Mount Street, W1, and who has known the Oetke family for many years.

Originally established in 1760 – making it the second oldest gallery in London after Spink – Colnaghi’s Bond Street Old Master dealership has been run as an independently financed business since 1996 by its renowned drawings specialist Jean-Luc Baroni, whose company shared expenses with the Oetker Group.

From next year Baroni and his Colnaghi colleagues Donald Garstang, Stephen Ongpin, Paula Bundy and Judith Hacker will be dealing under the name Jean-Luc Baroni Fine Art Ltd. New gallery premises are currently being sought.

“It will almost certainly be in London, but being French I’m also attracted by Paris as well. That’s where a lot of the things are bought,” says Baroni. “It’s a difficult decision.”

Having recouped losses incurred by Colnaghi’s Old Master paintings department in the early 1990s, the Oetker Group, whose primary earnings are in food and hotels, has chosen not to take up a five-year contractual option to make a further investment in the company in 2002.