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The marble busts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, left, and the Comte de Buffon, right, by Jean-Antoine Houdon sold for $660,000 (£500,000) and $590,000 (£446,970) by Cottone auctions on March 23.

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The busts portray Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Geneva-born philosopher and writer, and the naturalist and writer Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon.

They were created by one of the main sculptors of the enlightenment, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). The busts, both marble reductions measuring 11½ and 11in (29 and 28cm) high, are each signed and dated, the Rousseau houdon f 1788, and the Leclerc houdon f. 1789 and both are recorded as being exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1789.

The busts have a provenance that can be traced back to 1926 when they were acquired by the American diplomat and art collector the Hon. Irwin B Laughlin from the Paris dealer Paul Gouvert.

While some elements of Laughlin’s extensive collection were dispersed, these two busts had remained in the family.

They made their appearance at the rostrum on March 23 in Cottone Auctions’ Fine Art and Antiques auction in Geneseo, New York, with estimates of $15,000-25,000 apiece.

There was no shortage of interest in these sculptures with clients flying in from Europe to view them. Come the sale itself this translated into strong demand. “All of the major Old Master dealers at TEFAF Maastricht were on the phones”, said Cottone’s Michael Parsons. “There was very strong interest well into the six figures, then it was two bidders (both on the phone) that took it further.”

In the end the Rousseau bust was hammered down for $660,000 (£500,000) and the Comte de Buffon for $590,000 (£446,970) plus 18% buyer’s premium at the sale. Both were secured by the same buyer. The auctioneers have not revealed anything about their identity although Parsons said: “There are whispers that these busts are going into an institution’s collection, but nothing has been confirmed at this time.”