La Fillette au Braisier (Girl Blowing on a Brazier), a 2ft 6in x 1ft 10in (76 x 55cm) canvas from 1646-48 set a new house record for the firm at €3.6m (£3.27m).
Fewer than 50 pictures are known by the great French Baroque painter who spent most of his working life in the Duchy of Lorraine. This trademark nocturne, one of De la Tour’s few signed works, was the star of the collection of the aviation entrepreneur Hinrich Bischoff, who died in 2005, and his wife, Ingrid.
Bischoff had bought it at Christie’s in London in 1975 for £17,850 and it has since been included in a number of museum exhibitions.
The last time a painting by De la Tour was offered for sale was in 2008, when the half-length portrait of Saint James the Greater made just over $3.23m (including premium) at Sotheby’s in New York. It now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. Prior to that Christie’s sold A Blind Hurdy-Gurdy Player for £1.87m (including premium) in 1991.
Lempertz guided La Fillette au Braisier at €3m-4m and opened bidding at €2.4m. Two international museums were the main contenders. With commission the buyer will pay €4.34m. Lempertz’s previous record for an Old Master painting was set in 2012 when Gerard Dou’s Old Painter in his Studio sold at €3m to a London dealer.
In the Cologne sale there was also a strong result for a 17 x 13in (44 x 34cm) panel by the late 15th century Flemish artist Quinten Massys. His Mary in Prayer was estimated at €500,000-700,000, but went on to sell for €1.3m (£1.18m).