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How Picasso has given medical research a brighter future

All eyes were on Picasso's 1935 work, Jeune Fille Endormie, last night as it came under the hammer at Christie's in London.

However, the owner of the portrait – of the artist's then 25-year-old mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter – was conspicuous by his or her absence. In a remarkable act of philanthropy, the mystery American donor put the painting up for sale on the condition that the proceeds – expected to surpass £12m – be passed directly to the University of Sydney for research into conditions including diabetes.

Christie's called the donation "exceptionally rare" while beneficiaries hoped such deals could also help to pull Britain's ailing research establishments out of their current budget difficulties.

"In both Australia and the UK until the Second World War, universities were supported by public philanthropy," said Dr Michael Spence, the University of Sydney's vice-chancellor, who was at Christie's last night. "The universities need the public to support their work again."

The donor said in a statement: "When you own a valuable painting like this, it owns you back. For the first time in a long while, I finally feel free."