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The sales at Sotheby's and Christie's last week made a combined £120.6m, making it the most lucrative week seen so far in this category, beating the £80.1m in July 2002.

However, back then the sales did not include British pictures, which were a major factor here.

Christie's evening sale on July 3 saw 54 of the 64 lots (84%) get away for a £74.5m hammer total - a figure that was the highest for an Old Master and British picture sale and towards the top end of the £61.8m-88.3m estimate.

On the night, demand from dealers and established collectors met with some greater interest from outside the traditional bidding contingent, but it was the supply of a greater number of rarely-seen works that really made the difference here.

This time round, it was a British painting that made the top price of the series by some distance - John Constable's The Lock, which took £20m at Christie's. Setting a record for the artist and making one of the highest prices ever seen for a British picture, it sold to a single bidder on the telephone after no other interest emerged on the night.

The anonymous buyer was also the third-party guarantor of the picture - meaning they had agreed to bid to a minimum level, presumably £20m, in return for a financial return if they ended up being outbid.

Dreesmann Collection

Christie's evening sale also included the 11 pictures from the collection of Dutch retailing heir Pieter Dreesmann and his wife Olga, boosting the total by £22.2m.

All of them sold and most drew solid competition, although the consignment was led by Rembrandt's A Man in a Gorget and Cap, which sold below estimate at £7.5m to an Asian private buyer.

More demand came for three still lifes by Adriaen Coorte (c.1660-1707) which all drew multiple bidders, including Asparagus and Red Currants on a Stone Ledge which was also knocked down to an Asian buyer on the telephone at £2m, a new record for the artist at auction.

A separately-consigned Dutch picture which also set a record was a small oil-on-copper by Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638). A highly detailed and untouched painting, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan was subject to an extended bidding battle between two phone bidders and was eventually knocked down at £4.1m (est: £2m-4m).

Further records at Christie's came for Pietro Lorenzetti (c.1306-45) at £4.5m; Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597-1665) at £3.3m; Juan de Zurbaran (1620-49) at £2.4m; and Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657) at £2.3m. The latter was also knocked down to an Asian buyer.

Sotheby's Sale

Sotheby's evening sale the following night did not include as many prize lots and the total of £28.1m was well shy of their rivals, although within the estimate of £26.7m-40.4m. Overall, 29 of 43 lots sold.

The top lot was a naval scene by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707) depicting the surrender of the British flagship, The Royal Prince, to the Dutch fleet during the Four Days' Battle in 1666. Against a £1.5m-2.5m estimate, it drew four bidders including dealer William Noortman, who was in the room bidding for a Dutch client and secured it at £4.7m.

The sale also saw strong competition for Christ among the Doctors by Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616). A rare opportunity to acquire an autograph work by the artist at the height of his career, it was eventually knocked down to a European private buyer on the telephone at £3m (est:£400,000-600,000).

The buyer's premium at both Sotheby's and Christie's was 25/20/12%.