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The price betters the previous provincial high of £500,000 that was held jointly by two country auctioneers.

Further evidence of the trust vendors of major works of art now place in the smaller saleroom with the personal touch, the November 24 picture sale at the Sussex auctioneers included two significant 18th century English portraits – the Hayman conversation piece that depicts members of the Samuel Richardson family in an outdoor setting and a related Bath period Gainsborough.

Both, on the market for the first time, had been consigned by a gentleman who was a direct descendant of the sitters. His family were in the room to see them sell.

On the rostrum for the sale of these lots was David Ford, an independent valuer who was given the honour for his role in uncovering the two paintings during a routine insurance valuation.

Opening bidding for the Hayman at £50,000, Mr Ford quickly fielded bids from three phones up to £170,000, at which level a two-way telephonic volley ensued between Agnews on Phone One and Phone Two, widely thought to be fellow London picture dealer Richard Green.

The final bid, made by Agnews after a full five or six minutes of competition (occasionally at increments of just £5000), are thought to have set an auction high for the artist. It also came as a welcome seal of approval from the top London trade in the most traditional of British pictures.

The Hayman, measuring 3ft 4in x 4ft 2in (1.02 x 1.27m), features Samuel Richardson, his wife, their four young children and his sister, all dressed in shimmering 18th century silks. The commission probably dates to c.1740, shortly after the publication of the author’s phenomenally successful cult novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded. The picture had been relined and conserved in the late 19th century but had undergone no recent restoration.

The new record of £540,000 (plus 15 per cent plus buyer’s premium) exceeds the £500,000 landmark achieved by two salerooms in the past decade: at Finan & Co. of Mere, Wiltshire for a previously unrecorded and complete set of four near contemporary copies of the Negarestan murals, c.1815, in June this year and at Lacy Scott of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk for a pair of Sèvres vases in 1999. Now knocked out of the Antiques Trade Gazette’s top five provincial lots is a previous record-holder, the William Logsdail (1859-1944) painting, The Bank & Royal Exchange, sold by Hy. Duke of Dorchester in July 1998 for £420,000.

The Gainsborough three-quarter length portrait depicted the surgeon Dr Philip Ditcher (husband of Samuel Richardson’s eldest daughter Mary) wearing a plum-coloured frock coat, and was sold together with a letter from the artist relating the commission dated July 31 1779.

This freely painted, but less obviously commercial subject, measuring 4ft 2in x 3ft 4in (1.27 x 1.02m), sold for £185,000 to a buyer who requested anonymity.