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Van Dyck portrait of Princess Mary – £5m at Christie’s.

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Seemingly a remarkable coincidence, those who viewed the Old Master sales in London had the rare opportunity to compare two versions of the same royal portrait.

Underlining the importance of attribution and scholarship as a central determinant of value, the two full-lengths of Princess Mary (1631-60), daughter of Charles I, made quite different sums.

The first appeared at Sotheby’s on December 5 and was catalogued as ‘Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and studio’. Estimated at £600,000- 800,000, it was knocked down to a European dealer at £650,000. The following night at Christie’s, a fully autograph version sold on the phone at £5m hammer (estimate £5m-8m).

The two portraits – in the same size and format – dated from 1641, months before the artist’s premature death aged 42. Two other versions are in the Royal Collection and the British embassy in The Hague.

Christie’s (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) £5m picture – bought by the vendor in the same rooms in 1989 for £800,000 – is considered the prime version. It was described by van Dyck authority, Sir Oliver Millar, as having “clear signs of having been painted from life”, with the delicacy and lightness of touch to costume and shadows cast by the sitter’s hands unquestionably pointing to the artist himself.

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Van Dyck ‘and studio’ portrait – £650,000 at Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) £650,000 example, from an English collection, generated more debate as to the balance between master and studio involvement. In 2004 Millar had deemed it “almost certainly painted in the studio” but Sotheby’s contended that the head and hands were the work of van Dyck himself, with the costume probably entrusted to his assistants.

Sitting between them in terms of price was another van Dyck portrait sold at Sotheby’s. The portrait of the Prince of Wales (later Charles II) aged 11 came from the same source as the sister work. Estimated at £2m-3m, it sold at £2.3m to a private collector.

Rembrandt and Hals portraits

Sotheby’s top lot of the week was a small Rembrandt oil painting depicting Christ which came to auction from a vendor whose grandmother had bought it in 1956. During conservation work in 2001, two fingerprints were discovered on the work which were presumed to be those of the artist himself.

Shortly before the sale the £6m-8m lot became subject to a third-party guarantee. As bidding appeared to stall at £5.5m, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Old Masters George Wachter drew gasps when he jumped in at £8m, before another party bid £8.2m and the gavel fell.

Christie’s two-part evening sale was led by a pair of Frans Hals (c.1581-1666) portraits from the Eric Albada Jelgersma collection. Billed as the “finest pair of portraits by the artist to remain together in private hands”, they drew three bidders against an £8m-12m estimate and were knocked down at £8.7m to dealer Bob Haboldt.

Lawrence record

Christie’s main evening sale set a record for Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) when a portrait of Lady Selina Meade sold at £1.9m. The auctioneers were also able to claim the top lot of the week when a Lucas van Leyden drawing sold as part of the £14.7m sale of works from the Rugby School collection.

Top sculpture

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A porter admires a funerary statue of a Roman poet, 3ft 9in (1.15m) high, that sold for £3.5m at Sotheby’s.

Meanwhile, four well-received sales of sculpture and works of art offered across December 4-5 were dominated by the performance of a marble funerary portrait statue, c.50BC, at Sotheby’s.

Originally thought to be a likeness of Virgil, this rare statue of a professional poet of the early years of the empire was discovered before the First World War and entered the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, in 1936.

Sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2007 for a multi-estimate $2.05m (including premium), it has been on view at the Antikenmuseum in Basel for the past decade as the property of Hans Humbel of Swiss dealership Galerie Arete.

It improved on a £1.5-2m estimate to sell at £3.5m.