Top lot of the Old Master sales in London, Brood Mares and Foals by George Stubbs, which took £9m at Sotheby's.

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The evening sales at both houses this time struggled to bring totals within their estimates, with neither the Stubbs at Sotheby's nor the Poussin at Christie's generating serious levels of bidding.

Overall the auctions seemed flatter than the summer series or the equivalent sales last year, which saw a £26.5m Turner (Sotheby's, July) and a £26m Raphael (Christie's, December 2009).

The week's most expensive offering was also the biggest casualty. Nicolas Poussin's (1594-1665) Ordination failed to sell after seemingly no bids at Christie's evening sale on December 7.

The picture, which was being sold by David Manners, the 11th Duke of Rutland, was undoubtedly an important work - it was from the artist's first series of seven Sacraments and had been on loan to the National Gallery until earlier this year.

However, it was generally felt to lack the commercial appeal to justify the hefty £15m-20m estimate and, if the Duke was considering selling the other four works he owns from the series (he intended to sell all five in 2007), it may have proved a costly experiment.

The top offering at Sotheby's the night after, George Stubbs's (1724-1806) Brood Mares and Foals, did manage to sell after a single bid of £9m. Although below the £10m-15m estimate, this was a record for the artist three times over.

The 3ft 3in x 6ft 2in (1 x 1.89m) oil on canvas from 1768 came from the collection of the Earl of Macclesfield and was one of a group of such compositions painted for the artist's wealthy patrons during this period.

With no comparable work by Stubbs having been offered on the market before, this painting of horses in an idealised landscape was perhaps less likely to appeal to international collectors as would a more focused and dynamic portrait of a stallion in motion.

Nevertheless, the price provided a large part of Sotheby's £20.4m hammer total, with 32 of the 44 lots (73 per cent) finding buyers.

The total may have come in at the low end of its £20.4m-30m estimate, but there was more action further down the price scale and the strongest bidding contest arose for an intriguing portrait of an elderly woman by an artist known as the Monogrammist IS (fl.1633-1658).

Less than a dozen works attributed to the artist have been sold at auction in the last 15 years, and this arresting depiction of a Slavic woman, which emerged from a private source from Madrid, added weight to the claim the artist originated from the Baltic region.

Drawing five interested parties against a £30,000-50,000 estimate, it sold to London sculpture dealer Danny Katz (who is also a leading art collector) at £480,000.

Sotheby's also saw a record for Luis de Morales (c.1520-1586), whose tender Virgin and Child drew strong telephone competition against a £250,000-350,000 estimate and was sold at £1.4m to a European private buyer.

Despite the failure of the overpitched Poussin, Christie's evening sale made the marginally higher total at £21.7m, although from a greater number of lots: 52, of which 39 (75 per cent) got away. The total was below the pre-sale estimate, set at £32.1m-£45.7m.

Christie's top lot was Pentecost, a remarkable oil on panel by The Master of the Baroncelli Portraits, an anonymous artist understood to be active in Bruges in the late 15th century.

It was an extremely rare picture - only a handful of works are known, including two portraits of the Florentine banker Pietro Bandini Baroncelli and his wife, now in the Uffizi.

Impeccably preserved, it was estimated at £1m-1.5m and drew multiple bidders before selling at £3.7m to London-based dealer Jean-Luc Baroni.

Christie's also saw strong bidding on a portrait of Mary, Countess of Wilton by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), which sold to London dealers Richard Green at £1.55m against a £400,000-600,000 estimate.

They also saw record sums for two Dutch pictures: A View of Haarlem by Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde (1638-1698) which sold at £2.3m to an anonymous buyer on the phone against underbidding from London dealer Johnny Van Haeften, while The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) took £950,000 to an anonymous buyer.

The buyer's premium at both Sotheby's and Christie's was 25/20/12%

By Alex Capon