The estimate on the picture was £300-£500. When its turn came last Tuesday at Gilding's - a small, family-run auction house that holds about 45 sales per year - something truly extraordinary happened. "The atmosphere in the room became very tense - the bidding just went on and on," said the auctioneer, Mark Gilding. The final hammer price was £205,000.
And, enormous as the figure may seem, that's just the start of it. The London fine art trade is now abuzz: this painting is very probably a Titian, painted in Venice between about 1510 and 1520. And as such, its real market value is likely to be upwards of £5m.
A mystery remains: who bought, or indeed sold, the painting? Simon Dickinson, one of the most distinguished Old Master dealers in the UK, said yesterday: "I wish I knew - I've been trying to find out. No one seems to know; I've rung round most people." Christopher Foley, a dealer, was also in the dark, despite the phone ringing off the hook. "That price suggests that two people knew what it was: one of them perhaps young and clever, with a budget of £200,000. And someone else." Mr Gilding will say only that the buyer was someone "in the London trade"; and that the vendor was a private individual, a woman living locally, who bought the painting from a contents sale in 1974 from a house in the village of Great Glen, Leicestershire.