This watercolour by John Sell Cotman sold for £20,000 at Mellors & Kirk.

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Reframed some 30 years ago by the vendor, the 8 x 12in (20 x 30cm) work was offered at Mellors & Kirk (20% buyer’s premium) on September 19. Catalogued as ‘circle of’ Cotman, it was guided at £400-600.

The moody work depicting a town in a passing storm was pursued by a bidder in the room relaying those bids on his mobile, and a bidder on the phone. It was eventually knocked down to the latter at £20,000.

“It had a lovely quality to it and was in super condition, but the painting was weak in places. I looked at it long and hard but ultimately did not have enough confidence in it to give it the full attribution,” said auctioneer Nigel Kirk. “If it is Cotman, it is one of his early ones.”

The watercolour had divided the opinion of several “leading specialists” before the sale, said Kirk, with a suggestion that it might have been the work of Cotman’s contemporary Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), whose style was similar to Cotman’s early work.

While Cotman’s record stands at a premium-inclusive £338,500 for one of three significant watercolours of Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk, which the artist produced after his return to Norwich in 1806, many of Cotman’s watercolours sell for well below this and are usually determined by condition, date and subject.