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Appearing as the final lot at Sotheby's evening sale on December 5, there were four bidders prepared to try their hand to acquire Head of an Apostle which the auctioneers had estimated at £10m-15m.

Bidding was initially taken up by a telephone bidder and the London-based dealer Jean-Luc Baroni who was sitting at the back of the room just in front of a bank of TV cameras. When the bar reached £13m, all eyes suddenly turned to the third row as fellow Mason's Yard dealer Stephen Ongpin entered the fray.

The two dealers, who were both receiving instructions from clients via mobile phones, kept the competition going before another telephone bidder operating though a member of Sotheby's client services department came in at £16.5m.

All three parties then contributed to a prolonged and dramatic competition, taking the price up in increments of £250,000. Baroni finally dropped out at £23.5m while Ongpin ended up as the underbidder.

There was a round of applause in the saleroom as auctioneer Henry Wyndham knocked down the hammer at a level that just eclipsed the £26m for another Raphael drawing sold at Christie's in December 2009. The final sum was only behind Ruben's Massacre of the Innocents which made £45m in 2002 in terms of any Old Master picture sold at auction, but it was still the most expensive lot sold at auction in Europe this year in any category.

The drawing itself was a later work than the 2009 Raphael drawing at Christie's (Head of a Muse which was reported purchased by American collector Leon Black), but both black chalk drawings came to auction in superb condition.

Head of an Apostle itself was a sketch executed c.1519-20 and was a study for one of the figures in The Transfiguration - amongst Raphael's greatest paintings. The 14¾ x 11in (38 x 28cm) picture formed one of 17 auxiliary cartoons that are known for final large-scale painting now in the Vatican, six of which are in Britain (three in public collections and two in Chatsworth).

Should the buyer try to take the work out of the country, it will likely receive an export ban giving the nation six months to raise the funds to match the price in order to keep it in Britain.

The same may also be with the case with the 15th century illuminated manuscript The Deeds of Sir Gillion de Trazegnies in the Holy Land, which also came from Chatsworth and was offered at Sotheby's sale. It was knocked down to a dealer in the room acting for The J Paul Getty Museum at £3.4m (est: £3m-5m).

While the other illuminated manuscript from Chatsworth, Mystere de la Vengeance, failed to draw any bids against a £4m-6m estimate, the funds raised from these sales will go "to benefit the long-term future of Chatsworth and its collections" according to the current Duke of Devonshire who succeeded to the Chatsworth seat in 2004 and has been a member of the Sotheby's board since in November 1994, now serving as the company's deputy chairman.

Overall, Sotheby's 52-lot evening sale was pretty buoyant with 38 of the 51 lots selling (75%) for a hammer total of £51m. This was towards the top end of the £35.6m-52.9m estimate. On this occasion it was Sotheby's had the pick of the consignments and a string of pictures that came fresh to the market included a Balthasar van der Ast (1563-1657) still life that also drew prolonged bidding against a £300,000-400,000 estimate. With strong competition coming in the room from members of the trade, it was eventually knocked down at £1.3m.

Jan Steen's (c.1626-1679) The prayer before the meal saw a more muted response against a £5m-7m estimate but got away at the low end of expectations to the single interested party who was also the third-party guarantor.

Christie's Sale

Meanwhile, Christie's Old Master evening sale on December 3 was a patchier affair by contrast to both this sale and also their own bumper Old Master auction in July that raised £74.5m. The £9.78m hammer total was below the £11.6m-17.2m estimate with 29 out of 54 lots (54%) finding buyers.

The sale saw a record for Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) when The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa overshot a £500,000 - 800,000 estimate and was knocked down to London dealer Johnny Van Haeften at £1.8m.

Bonhams also saw a number of lots commanding strong competitions in their Old Master sale on December 5. This was particularly the case with their top lot, a painting of Saint Peter that was attributed El Greco (1541-1614) and went ten-times over its £40,000-60,000 estimate, selling at £670,000 to a European buyer. The sale's hammer total was £1.87m with 51 of the 101 lots finding buyers.

When the money generated from the day sales was added on, the overall hammer total at the three salerooms over the week was £68.8m, up on the £51.4m for the equivalent Old Master series last year although lower than the £122m seen in the July sales.

A full report of the Old Master sales will appear in a future issue of ATG's printed newspaper. To subscribe click here.