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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A rare, more than 500-year-old portrait of the Madonna and child from a private collection is expected to fetch up to $15 million when it is sold at an auction of antiquities and Old Master paintings, Christie's said on Thursday.
The portrait by Fra Bartolommeo, which Christie's said dates to the mid-1490s, is beautifully preserved and still set in its original frame - and the highlight of the private collection.
"This fine collection encompasses the perfect ingredients for the current antiquities market - exquisite works of art, many with deep provenances (ownership history), even as far back as the 18th century," Christie's international head of antiquities, G. Max Bernheimer, told Reuters.
The circular format of the Madonna is significant, Christie's explained in a statement, in that the Greeks revered the circle as the perfect geometrical form.
Romans used the shape for portraits to denote the subject's apotheosis, while Fra Bartolommeo's Renaissance contemporaries associated it with birth, death and resurrection cycles.
"This is an iconic work from one of the greatest moments in the history of art," said Nicholas Hall, co-chairman of old masters and 19th-century art.
The highlight of the antiquities portion of the collection is a Roman marble portrait bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, circa 170-180 A.D., which is estimated to go for $800,000 to $1.2 million.
Another Renaissance highlight is the "Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni, a 1574 work by noted Roman portraitist Scipione Pulzone, who painted popes and royals. It is estimated to fetch between $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Hall said the portrait had hung for five years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Antiquities have achieved some astounding prices in recent years. A Roman Imperial marble bust sold for $23.8 million in late 2010, nearly 10 times its pre-sale estimate, while a limestone lioness figure circa 3,000 B.C. fetched more than $57 million in 2007.
The art market itself has been on a roll, with records set in recent months for works by a living artist, as well as the most expensive work ever sold at auction.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Patricia Reaney and Todd Estham