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Julien was also pleased with Horta’s first sale of 2004, a workmanlike 500-lot affair with a selling rate of 86 per cent on January 19-20 which, he says, ensured that “we began 2004 in the finest possible way”.

The top price of the sale, €37,000 (£25,500) against an estimate of €15,000-25,000, went to a four-drawered brass-mounted curved walnut commode from Liège (c.1725), with ebonised inlay to the drawers, top and sides, and brass and wood claw-and-ball feet. The commode had been restored but still had a lengthy crack along the top; it retained considerable decorative potential.

There were few other furniture highlights. A chunky Louis XIV walnut-veneered wardrobe from the Grenoble region, 7ft (2.1m) tall, with florid palissander marquetry, fetched €4200 (£2900) and a dainty Dutch mahogany corner cupboard with floral marquetry (c.1800) took €3000 (£2070).

The sale’s most unexpected price was the €31,000 (£21,400), five times top estimate, paid for a bulbous silver teapot, 71/2in (19cm) tall, with ebonised handle, dragon-head spout, and a Brussels hallmark thought to indicate the year 1777.

A stoneware Art Deco vase by Charles Catteau, with enamelled decoration of snakes and lions, 14in (35cm) in both height and diameter, took a double-estimate €8500 (£5860) despite a mended chip. A carved ivory crozier, 6ft 5in (1.96m) tall, probably from Dieppe (c.1800), exceeded predictions on €4000 (£2760).

Leading painting was an undated panel, Jeune Fille aux Papillons by Jan Portielje (1829-1908), 2ft x 19in (60 x 49cm), portraying a young woman with a copper pail by a stream, wearing an apron in Belgian national colours and trying to catch a white butterfly with her left hand. It sold for €19,000 (£13,100), just short of hopes.

An Art Deco portrait of a seated lady by Louis Buisseret, Imperia (1930), 3ft 6in x 2ft 10in (1.07m x 87cm), doubled estimate on €11,000 (£7585), while a small seascape panel by Alfred Stevens, Vapeur et Voilier Avant l’Orage, 16 x 13in (41 x 33cm), sold over estimate for €7000 (£4830).

Two works by André Hallet (1890-1959), each set in Africa, doubled estimate: Pagayeurs sur une Pirogue au Lac Kivu, 3ft 3in x 2ft 7in (1m x 80cm), with €5700 (£3930); and the smaller Danseuses aux Environs de Coquilhatville, 2ft x 2ft 2ft 4in (60 x 70cm), on €3800 (£2620).

La Cueillette (1887), a tiny Théo van Rysselberghe watercolour, 33/4 x 61/2in (9.5 x 16.5cm), showing a woman in her vegetable garden, scored €3400 (£2345). Roméo Dumoulin’s Le Repos, pastel on paper 2ft 3in x 2ft 9in (68 x 84cm), a humorous look at lunchbreak workmen – one munching a sandwich, one snoozing, one puffing a pipe and the fourth swigging from a bottle – rated €6000 (£4140), while Jean Le Mayeur’s Deux Jeunes Femmes Conversant, charcoal on paper 18in x 2ft (46 x 60cm), took €4000 (£2785).

The sale’s only Old Master of note was a large 17th century Flemish canvas, 6ft 9in x 4ft 6in (2.05 x 1.38m), attributed to a follower of Gaspar de Crayer, with a demure portrayal of the 3rd century Sicilian martyr St Agatha of Catania, at €8500 (£5860). Here the dying saint, dressed like a Habsburg princess, is shown with an arrow in her chest; church tradition has her breasts slashed off by Roman soldiers.

The sale’s sculpture met a muted response. A bronze Harlequin (1879), height 2ft 3in (68cm), by Charles-René de St-Marceaux and cast by Barbedienne, sold on low-estimate for €4000 (£2760); and a padding polar bear or Ours Marchant by Raymond de Meester, 18in (46cm) long, in bronze with dark brown patina, cast by Rocher and numbered 6/12, made do with €3000 (£2070), short of hopes.

The Galerie Moderne in Brussels was also in action early in the New Year, offering nearly 1500 lots on January 20-21 and earning a top price of €10,000 (£6895) for two Flemish works of art: a late 17th century tapestry featuring three archers, acquired by a private buyer; and a 15th century Christ aux Outrages, panel 2ft x 16in (61 x 41cm), showing a haloed Christ with blood dripping down his forehead from a crown of very spiky thorns.

Top price for a modern Belgian artist was the double-estimate €4400 (£3035) paid for Philippe Swyncop’s 1921 Fillette au Chapeau fleuri, 2ft x 20in (60 x 50cm) – a cheerful female portrait with bold brushwork. A single-owner array of 20 works (mainly landscapes and still lifes) by the 20th century Belgian neo-Impressionist Oswald Poreau sold for prices ranging from €500 (£350) to €2000 (£1400).

English furniture enjoys a ready audience at the Galerie Moderne and on this occasion a Victorian flame mahogany secretaire bookcase, with four glass doors and a fall-front enclosing pigeonholes and three small drawers, sold to a Brussels private buyer for €4200 (£2895), just over top-estimate.

Sale expert Yves De Vos says that business has been picking up over recent months, albeit more among private buyers than dealers, who “remain timid”. That didn’t stop the London trade paying the highest price at the Galerie’s previous sale on December 17: a quadruple-estimate €20,000 (£13,795) for a Chiparus bronze and ivory statuette of a slender ballerina on an onyx Art Deco base, a price achieved despite slight damage to the figure’s left hand.
(All sales 20% buyer’s premium)