Rare Raphael drawing raises record $48 million

LONDON Wed Dec 5, 2012 6:20pm EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - One of the greatest drawings by Renaissance master Raphael still in private hands sold for 29.7 million pounds ($47.9 million) on Wednesday, an auction record for the artist in sterling terms and double pre-sale expectations.

Sotheby's auctioneers had high hopes for the 16th century "Head of an Apostle", a study for Raphael's last painting "Transfiguration" which is on display at the Vatican Museum in Rome.

When the artist died in 1520, his body was laid out in state in his studio with the Transfiguration hanging at his head.

Measuring roughly 15 inches by 11 inches, the picture drawn in black chalk went on a mini-world tour prior to the London auction in a bid to drum up interest from Asia as well as Europe and North America.

"If you are lucky, at some point in your career a work like this comes along," said Gregory Rubinstein, head of old master drawings at Sotheby's.

"A number of the world's greatest collectors stepped up tonight in recognition of the genius of Raphael and the extraordinary beauty of this drawing with its exceptional provenance."

According to Sotheby's, only two other Raphael drawings of the same caliber have been auctioned in the last 50 years - in 2009, Raphael's black chalk "Head of a Muse" sold for 29.2 million pounds at Christie's in London.

In dollar terms, that picture narrowly trumped Head of an Apostle due to fluctuating exchange rates, but since both were sold in pounds in London, Sotheby's is claiming the crown.

Head of an Apostle was from the collection at Chatsworth, the ancestral home of the 12th Duke of Devonshire who is also deputy chairman of Sotheby's. It is expected the proceeds of the sale will go towards the upkeep of the estate.

It was the last lot of the Old Master and British Paintings sale at Sotheby's which raised 58.1 million pounds overall.

The auction had been expected to total 35.6-52.9 million, although hammer prices include buyers' premiums meaning that the final tally was in line with the upper estimate.

The buyer was not identified, but the winning bid went to a member of Sotheby's staff who often represents Russian clients.

The sale extends a string of strong results by leading auction houses in recent months as wealthy collectors, including those from emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East, defy broader economic gloom to snap up rare treasures.

Dutch master Jan Steen's interior scene "The Prayer Before the Meal" dated 1660 sold for 5.6 million pounds, or at the lower end of expectations between 5.0 and 7.0 million.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles confirmed it had acquired "Roman de Gillion de Trazegnies", a 15th century illuminated manuscript from Flanders by Lieven van Lathem which sold for 3.8 million pounds.

There were disappointments on the night, however.

Philip the Good's finely illuminated copy of the drama "Mystere de la Vengeance" dated around 1465 had been expected to fetch 4.0-6.0 million pounds but failed to find a buyer.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Jill Serjeant)

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