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The sale may have taken place some time ago now but the importance of this contorted infidel with thickly curled windswept hair and head defiantly thrown back, standing on a shell and grasping the tail of the dolphin is worthy of mention.

Although damaged and only attributed to Bernini, the quality of the work convinced New York-based Salander-O’Reilly Galleries that it was indeed by this great master.

“I considered the issue very carefully and I am aware of the talented men in his workshop, but the quality of this piece is so exceptional it cannot but be by him [Bernini],” said Andrew Butterfield, senior vice- president of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. “His back was just amazing,” enthused Sotheby’s specialist Elizabeth Wilson, who nevertheless gave the sculpture a cautious £120,000-180,000 pre-sale estimate.

It is thought that Pope Innocent X commissioned the terracotta from Bernini as the basis for a marble sculpture to replace his shell and dolphin centrepiece for Giacomo della Porta’s polygon basin in Rome.

After the Pope died, the commission was given to another workshop who used the figure for the completed marble sculpture now in place.

Consigned from a private European collection where it had been for around 40 years, around five telephone bidders shared Andrew Butterfield’s view that it was by Bernini and it was contested at a high level by museum, private and trade buyers. It was secured by Salander O’Reilly at £1.9m.

The modellino will be the centrepiece of an exhibition of Italian sculpture at their New York galleries from December to January 2003. The price bid for Il Moro may have accounted for over a third of the £5,354,000 total, but a punchy bid was also placed to secure a large pair of Florentine mannerist bronzes of allegorical male figures astride fantastic beasts, 16th century, 16in by 2ft 71/2in (40 x 80cm).

Consigned from a private French collection, the bronzes had formerly graced the collections of Baron Adolphe and Maurice de Rothschild.

Their original function is not known but the catalogue entry suggests they may have been intended as part of a bacchic procession.

Although these bronzes did not have a firm attribution, there was little doubt as to their mid-16th century Florentine origins and the pair were
estimated at £1m-£1.5m. They attracted private and trade interest and were secured on the telephone by an anonymous buyer – rumoured to be a major dealer – for £1.65m.

“We haven’t had two lots [in one European sculpture and works of art sale] over £1m for a long time,” said Elizabeth Wilson.