Although unprepossessing on the outside, the musical boxes of François Nicole are celebrated for their early date and technical sophistication. This one sold for £54,000 at Moore Allen & Innocent.

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It had been more than a decade since another of these unprepossessing boxes had appeared at auction. Housed in a plain satinwood case measuring 19in (47cm) wide overall, it contained a cylinder with approximately 167 teeth and the signature Francs Nicole.

It was estimated at £300-500 but attracted bidding to more than 100 times that sum.

"We didn't realise the significance of François Nicole… and thought it might make £1000 on a good day," said auctioneer Philip Allwood. "Then a couple of days before the auction we started getting enquiries from the elite of the European collectors' community. One chap described François Nicole as the Michelangelo of musical box makers."

Nicole (only a very distant relative of better-known brothers Nicole) ranks among the earliest makers of musical boxes, and the absence of a visible serial number on this example suggested this was one of his earliest works.

At c.1825, it is among the earliest overture musical boxes and was considered an exceptional survival with no damage or sign of repair to the satinwood case or teeth and an unusually deep tone. François Nicole invented the damper that allowed bass notes to be played without extraneous noise.

Mr Allwood started the bidding at £5000, and had pre-registered interest of up to £15,000, but two bidders were prepared to go much higher. The price was £54,000 (plus 15 per cent buyer's premium) - believed to be a record sum for the maker. The buyer was described as a collector from Europe.