THE busiest week of the year for Old Masters in London provided further signs that the top end of this market is surviving the downturn better than its modern counterparts.

Drawing a gruelling bidding battle at Sotheby's on July 8, Prometheus by Jusepe de Ribera was arguably the highlight of last weeks' Old Master auctions in London, selling at a record £3.4m.

The Old Master auctions last week coincided with an unprecedented number of dealer exhibitions held as part of Master Paintings Week and Master Drawings London, the organisers of which both reported decent levels of interest and some brisk trade.

At the time of going to press there was plenty of evidence around the 23 participating galleries that the first staging of Master Paintings Week in London had got off to a successful start.

On the Sunday evening of opening parties in St James and Mayfair on July 4, despite the marathon men's tennis final at Wimbledon still in progress, the galleries were full and sales were made.

Konrad Bernheimer of Colnaghi had 390 visitors to his Bond Street gallery on the first weekend and sold a major 17th century Dutch painting to a new American client for a seven-figure sum. Indeed, a notable feature of the initiative was the number of American collectors and curators who had come over specifically for the event.

Museum interest was especially strong, with representatives from the New York Met, the Getty, Fort Worth Museum, Tate Britain, Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Dutch Royal Collection in attendance. Works have been reserved.

Further evidence of UK and overseas buyers coming to London especially for Master Paintings Week was the number of first- and second-floor galleries who encountered people that had never been on the premises before.

As well as Konrad Bernheimer at Colnaghi, others to enjoy good early sales included his fellow co-organisers Richard Green and Johnny Van Haeften, as well as Mark Weiss, Fergus Hall, Michael Tollemache and Philip Mould.

Organiser of Master Drawings London Crispian Riley Smith said that this year's event was busier than last year as buyers were encouraged to visit the capital by the complementary Master Paintings event coinciding with their own.

Meanwhile, the Old Master auctions did not see a significant year-on-year drop in totals, unlike the June Impressionist & Modern series and the Contemporary art sales. Although some Old Master dealers bemoaned a lack of 'unseen' lots on offer, competitive bidding emerged on a number of high-quality works that were fresh to the market and the sales were punctuated by a smattering of record prices.

There was also a sense that visually striking works were bringing greater levels of interest. This was certainly the case with Jusepe de Ribera's (1591-1652) dramatic Prometheus from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection, which sold at Sotheby's for £3.4m and is pictured on this page.

The large and piercing painting drew seven interested parties and depicted the Greek mythological character chained to a rock and having his liver fed upon daily by an eagle. It had been acquired by the Johnson & Johnson heiress from a London dealer 30 years ago and had never been offered at auction before.

Estimated at £800,000-£1.2m, it was knocked down to an Italian collector, setting a record for the Spanish artist by a considerable margin.

Overall, the evening sale of the Johnson collection on July 8 made a hammer total of £8.41m, while Sotheby's mixed-owner Old Master evening sale on the same night made £22.5m. The top lot there was Pieter Brueghel the Younger's (1564-1636) The Massacre of the Innocents, which saw four bidders take it over its £2.5m-3.5m estimate before it was knocked down at £4.1m to an anonymous collector on the telephone, underbid by a Russian-based dealer in the room.

Christie's Old Master and 19th century art evening sale on July 7 saw a hammer total of £17.4m, with the joint highest price being £1.9m made for both The Madonna and Child by Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) - a record for the artist - and The Courtyard of the Doge's Palace, Venice by Michele Giovanni Marieschi (1710-1743), both of which were estimated at £2m-3m.

By Alex Capon and David Moss

Further reports of Master Paintings Week, Master Drawings London and the Old Master auctions will appear in next week's ATG printed newspaper. To subscribe, click here.