Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which sold for a record £26.5m at Sotheby's, going to the Getty Museum via London dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox.

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But Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino, offered as the last lot at Sotheby's Old Master & British Paintings evening sale on July 7, more than made up for what at times felt like a lacklustre series last week. It was knocked down at £26.5m to London dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox who were in the room bidding on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Estimated at £12m-18m, there were at least four interested parties on the night. After going beyond top estimate, it came down to a two-way bidding battle with the underbidder an unidentified American at the front of the room taking instructions on his mobile phone.

It set a record for the artist by beating the $32m (£19.1m) seen for Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio sold at Christie's New York in April 2006. The only work by a British artist ever to have made more at auction is a Triptych by Francis Bacon that made $77m (£41.4m) at Sotheby's New York in May 2008.

Consigned by the descendant of the 5th Earl of Rosebery (who succeeded Gladstone as Liberal Prime Minister in 1894), the Turner was a superb painting by anyone's estimation.

One of only five works of comparable standing left in private hands before the auction, it will now probably be subject to an export ban but, should insufficient funds emerge to keep the picture in the UK, as seems likely, it will take pride of place amongst the Getty's Turner holdings, which currently feature one oil painting and two watercolours.

Sotheby's deputy chairman and senior specialist David Moore-Gwyn put the record price down to the quality, condition, provenance and market freshness of the picture. Describing it as a "breathtaking image", he said it was "one of the most important Turners ever to come to the auction market" and added that Sotheby's had received enquiries from all over the world.

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino was the companion piece to Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, which was part of the Turner Bequest in 1856 and is now in the Tate.

It was in unrestored condition and in its original frame.

The Turner helped Sotheby's evening sale to a £46.8m hammer total against a £33.8m-49.6m pre-sale estimate, with 39 of the 57 lots finding buyers.

Sotheby's next most expensive lots were two paintings that made £2.2m against estimates of £2m-3m. Jan Lievens' (1607-1674) portrait of a bearded old man also set a record, selling to Paris-based dealer Bob Haboldt in the room, while The Kermesse of Saint George with the Dance Around the Maypole by Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-c.1637) sold to an anonymous telephone bidder.

Christie's, meanwhile, offered two prize works from the Spencer collection at their evening sale of Old Master & 19th Century pictures on July 6 -A Commander Being Armed for Battle by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), which had been kept at the family seat of Althorp (Princess Diana's childhood home) for 200 years; and King David by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (1591-1666), which had been at the same location for 90 years.

Both lots got away but failed to bring high levels of bidding against punchy estimates. These estimates were thought to be a reflection of the competition to win the consignment and, indeed, the Rubens carried a symbol indicating that it had been guaranteed by the auctioneers, a practice uncommon in the Old Master market.

At the sale, the Rubens sold for a low-estimate £8m to London and Munich-based dealer Konrad Bernheimer, who bought it for a client, while the Guercino went below estimate at £4.6m to a different London trade buyer.

With a Portrait of Sigismund Baldinger by Georg Pencz (c.1500-1550) selling at £5m to the Milwaukee-based collector and art investor Alfred Bader - a low-estimate sum but a record price for the artist - Christie's sale totalled £36.8m, with 47 of the 67 lots finding takers (70 per cent).

Including the day sales, the overall hammer total for the series was £96m, significantly up on the £60m last year, thanks in no small part to the Turner.

By Alex Capon