Neapolitan 18th century oil-on-panel study of character heads, €57,500 (£49,500) at Bertolami.

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Bertolami Fine Arts(22% buyer’s premium) April 18 sale of Old Master & 19th Century Paintings sale included an intriguing 18th century Italian oil on panel depicting eight gurning heads along with a cat, a snake and two birds. Estimated at €1300-2500, it took €57,500 (£49,500).

The cataloguing suggested the 18 x 21in (46 x 53cm) image may depict the Seven Deadly Sins - pride, wrath, greed, lust et al - but it is more probably an exercise in the pseudo-science of physiognomy or what the French artist Charles Le Brun called ‘the passions’.

In his hugely influential treatise, Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions (1698), Le Brun outlined the various facial expressions and the complex geometry of the skull he believed revealed the faculties of the spirit and condition of the soul.

Several of the heads in this composition appear to be based on Le Brun’s engravings that for nearly two centuries provided the textbook illustration of human emotion.