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Being born in Russia into the family of a Polish army officer in the service of the Czar, trained at St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and dying, after an extremely successful career most of which was spent in Rome, on his estate at Strzalkowo, Poland, Siemiradzki is a 19th century neoclassical painter who can be listed as either Polish or Russian.

This particular painting, shown right, discovered by Bonhams in a private collection in Denmark, was a smaller version of the enormous 8ft 2in x 23ft 1in (3.85 x 7.04m) canvas, Nero’s Torches or Chandeliers of Christianity, painted in 1876, which won Siemiradzki a Gold Medal at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

The following year it was donated by the artist to the people of Krakow. Very much in the tradition of Thomas Couture’s similarly tennis court-size The Romans of the Decadence, which was the sensation of the 1847 Paris Salon and which now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, Nero’s Torches was inspired by a gruesome passage in Tacitus’s Annals describing how, in AD 64, the Emperor Nero burned Christians as human torches in an attempt to deflect suspicions that his pyromania might have been responsible for the Great Fire of Rome earlier in the year.

In their lengthy catalogue entry, Bonhams pointed out that Siemiradzki was producing preliminary sketches for this painting in Rome at exactly the same time that his great friend and fellow Polish ex-pat Pole Henryk Sienkewicz was beginning his epic novel, Quo vadis? Both works bristle with painstakingly researched archeological detail. This smaller version, signed and dated 1882, and in original unlined condition in its original frame, had been acquired by its Danish owners in 1940 from C.C. Christensen, owner of the Victoria Theatre in Copenhagen, who, in turn, had acquired it in 1921 from von Botkinen, the Russian cultural attaché in Berlin, who formed one of the most widely admired art collections in Russia.

Prestigious provenances such as this are much sought-after by the new generation of Russian collectors, and, although interest was expressed by one or two potential Polish buyers, it was always going to be the sort of opulent trophy picture which would appeal to a money-no-object oligarch. The eventual buyer, at £260,000, was a Moscow agent bidding on the telephone on behalf of a Russian collector, underbid by another Russian on the telephone. The pre-sale estimate had been £120,000-180,000.