The unframed oil painting estimated at £50-80 at TW Gaze that went on to take £160,000.

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The picture was lightly catalogued as a 19th century oil of a mother and child.

Measuring 2ft 7in x 2ft 1in (78 x 64cm), it came to the TW Gaze saleroom with a few other items from a local vendor and was estimated at £50-80 in the Antiques and Interiors sale of August 19 - but sold for a £160,000 hammer price.

According to Elizabeth Talbot, director of the Diss firm, “it wasn’t an especially head-turning collection of items, and it was from quite a modest setting, so there was no inkling that it was anything unusual at the outset”.

Nor was there much buzz around the picture in the lead-up to the sale. One interested party came to see the picture on the viewing day and there was a flurry of modest commission bids. Most of the interest on the day came online.

Bidding lasted 14 minutes. It started at £85 and with no increment greater than £500 it required 407 bids before the lot was hammered down at the sixfigure sum (plus 18% buyer's premium).

Among the bidders was dealer Luke Bodalbhai who told ATG: “It was tricky for me to assess the quality of the painting from the murky online image and given it needs a clean itself, but it definitely felt earlier to me than was stated in the description.”

Before the sale he found another version of the picture that sold at Christie’s Amsterdam in May 2012.

That picture was catalogued as The Holy Family with St John the Baptist and was attributed to the Italian painter Jacopo Cavedone (1577-1660). It sold for a premium-inclusive €11,250.

Bodalbhai added: “I thought it might have something to do with Cavedone. The whopping price it subsequently made suggests that at least two others thought it was something more significant.”

Carracci connection

A similar composition of the same subject, recorded in the photo archive catalogue of Fondazione Federico Zeri of Universitá di Bologna, is listed as the work of the Italian master Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), who taught Cavedone. It is possible, according to Bodalbhai, that the work offered by Christie’s was Cavedone’s copy of an original prototype by the master - and that this was the version offered in Norfolk.

Carracci works can stretch into the millions on the open market, whereas Cavedone paintings are more likely to top out in the five figures.

The anonymous buyer has indicated that there is more research to be done.

Talbot added: “This was the first time in a long while that we’ve had such a sleeper and it’s obviously caused a frisson of excitement among the auction team. Certainly, to have something that’s caused so much excitement among the art world is not an experience that we have very often.

“The experience confirms there is absolutely nothing like the thrill of an auction and it’s exciting that sleepers can still be found: potentially any auction house can be delivered a surprise at any time.”