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At the time of writing, the Christmas blockbuster offerings were yet to get under way at the major London salerooms, but a scattering of buoyant results last month in the regions for pictures of quality bode well for the venerable sector as it heads into the business end of the year.

On November 28 Cambridge saleroom Cheffins (22.5% buyer’s premium) offered a clutch of fresh-to-market Old Masters and portrait miniatures inherited by the well-known career diplomat and crime fiction writer Richard Parsons, who died in 2016.

Unidentified master

A festive feel surrounded the headline lot: a 15th century altarpiece of the Madonna and Child by the so-called Master of San Miniato (fl.1460-80).

The (as yet) unidentified Italian painter received his name after eight paintings in the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. These unsigned paintings were recognised as the works of a master to whom later more than 50 others, comprised almost entirely of images of the Madonna and Child, were also attributed.

A potential Grand Tour purchase, the work had not been offered on the open market since the 19th century, although it had been due to go under the hammer at Christie’s in 1979 but was withdrawn by Parsons. It was there that its current attribution was established.

The 22 x 14in (56 x 37cm) tempera and gold on panel tipped over the £20,000-30,000 estimate to sell for £38,000 to a London trade buyer who outbid Italian interest via one of five phones. Brett Tryner, associate at Cheffins, said after the sale that it may well end up in Italy, “knowing who bought it”.

The price was in line with other pictures sold on the secondary market of a similar standard, although some way off the top level for the painter’s work. A Madonna and Child, described by Christie’s as “evincing all the charm of his finest works”, sold in its New York saleroom for a premium-inclusive record $386,500 (about £246,180) in January 2013.

That price for the San Miniato Master has yet to be bettered.

Dashing dignitary


Portrait miniature of Thomas Fones by Isaac Oliver – £14,000.

Another work drawing animated bidding was a miniature on vellum by Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617), protégé of the great Tudor and Jacobean miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard.

Dated to c.1612-15 (based on the shape and style of the sitter’s collar), the late work depicts one of Parsons’ ancestors, the enterprising and dashing Thomas Fones. He was Mayor of Plymouth in 1620, the year the Mayflower sailed to the New World.

With an enticing £3000-5000 estimate, it drew bids from five phones before it was knocked down at £14,000 to the London trade.

“We were cautious with the estimate, as prices for Oliver range from £500 to £100,000. But the fact it depicted a named sitter, which is very unusual for Oliver, and had never been on the market before, helped on the day,” said Tryner.

The offering was well timed, with the National Portrait Gallery soon to stage the first major exhibition on Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures in the UK for over 35 years, centred on the work of Hilliard and Oliver.

Outside the collection was a rare opportunity to acquire a contemporaneous portrait of a major political figure in Elizabethan England.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the queen’s most trusted and powerful advisor, courtier and politician, is depicted wearing a cameo brooch of Elizabeth in a gemset frame on his hat and holding the white rod of the lord high treasurer. Cecil occupied that position from 1572 until his death, and built Burghley House in Lincolnshire, possibly the largest Tudor mansion to survive.

Consigned from a German private collection, the 22 x 17in (57 x 44cm) oil on oak panel came in a handsome tabernacle frame and tipped over top estimate to sell to an internet bidder on thesaleroom.com for £16,000.

Although contemporary portraits of Cecil are rare, another cropped up at Essex saleroom Sworders this year. Probably 16th or early 17th century, it was catalogued as by a follower of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and took £15,000 in April.

Taste of paradise

Elsewhere at Cheffins, one of the biggest bidding contests emerged for a Flemish depiction of the Garden of Eden. The 16 x 20in (42 x 52cm) oil on copper was catalogued as by a follower of Jan van Kessel (1626-79). Kessel was one of the great Flemish still-life painters of the 17th century, best known for his small, jewel-like pictures of insects or shells.

Despite some staining and a thin layer of paint suggesting it had been cleaned at some stage, it nevertheless drew decent bidding and it was knocked down at £7000, nearly nine times the top guide. The price suggests that some may have detected a hand closer to Kessel than was previously thought.