Acis & Galatea, a painting catalogued as ‘18th century French School’ and estimated at £6000-8000, sold for £58,000 at Chorley’s.

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“It was one of those interesting paintings where some parts looked very good and other parts looked less good. It was a bit of a puzzle.”

Thomas Jenner-Fust, Chorley’s (20% buyer’s premium) director and valuer, describes the picture that sparked a bidding war at the saleroom’s two-day auction in Gloucestershire on March 28-29.

Painted by an accomplished but unidentified hand, the 3ft 1in x 4ft 6in (95cm x 1.36m) oil on canvas depicts the mythological lovers Acis and Galatea from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the scene, the sea nymph Galatea turns Acis into an immortal river spirit to protect him from the murderous intent of the jealous cyclops, Polyphemus. They embrace while the sea nymph points to the cyclops brooding on a rock.

Catalogued as ‘18th century French School’, it drew eight phone bidders. It was taken beyond £20,000 by two interested parties until it was eventually knocked down to a European dealer on the phone at £58,000, over eight times the guide.

Mystery artist

The picture’s high price raises the question: who painted it? Although no attribution was given by the auction house, Jenner-Fust revealed that similarities during cataloguing were found with the work of one artist – but that he wasn’t confident enough in the painting’s quality to make the attribution.

That artist was Jacques Dumont ‘Le Romain’ (1701-81), who came from a long line of sculptors, but was primarily known as a history painter. He earned the soubriquet ‘Le Romain’ from studying in Rome as a young man but returned to France in 1725 and embarked on a successful career.

Dumont is known to have painted Ovid’s myth at least once: an oil titled Galatea which sold at Christie’s London in December 1992 for £10,000. As is often the case with attributions, however, opinions differ.

One Old Master dealer told ATG that the picture was created later, c.1810, but painted in the manner of an 18th century artist such as Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725-1805), who was celebrated for his elegant paintings of classical and mythological subjects. The clue to its later date, the dealer said, was in the “19th century expression” on the face of Galatea.

Relined but in decent overall condition, the picture came to auction with around 50 lots from a private collection that had been kept in storage near Salisbury for over a decade and was consigned by the descendants of the original owner. The owner is known to have acquired art from Paris in the 1970s or ’80s, but the auction house could not say whether this work was among them.

The family is said to be in the process of trying to uncover more about the painting’s origins.