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Late 18th century 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.

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A total of $1.25m (£946,970) was paid out by one determined buyer for two 18th century French marble busts at an auction held in New York State by Cottone (18% buyer’s premium) on March 23.

The busts combined a famous sculptor, market freshness, a detailed historic provenance and enticingly pitched estimates.

The busts portray the 18th century luminaries 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 former houdon f 1788, and the latter houdon f. 1789 and both are recorded as being exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1789.

Provenance back to 1926

Their provenance 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. Laughlin was known for building an extensive collection of French Old Master drawings while he served as ambassador to Spain in the 1920s-30s, helped by Agnews and drawings expert Henri Brémont.

Preserved by his widow, much of the collection was dispersed in 1959 when it was inherited by their daughter Gertrude, and some remaining elements were bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

These two busts however, remained in the family. (They were also photo archived back in 1932 by the Frick Art Reference library.)

Keen bidder demand

Cottone included them in its Fine Art and Antiques auction in Geneseo, with estimates of $15,000- 25,000 apiece, although the auction house had felt they were highly likely to make more.

Certainly there was no shortage of pre-sale interest, with clients flying in from Europe to view them.

Demand was very keen when it came to the actual auction.

“All of the major Old Master dealers at TEFAF Maastricht were on the phones,” said Cottone’s specialist 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.”

The Rousseau bust was hammered down for $660,000 (£500,000) and the Comte de Buffon for $590,000 (£446,970). Both were secured by the same buyer. Cottone has 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.”

£1 = $1.32