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The Independent Online
AUCTIONEERS are praying the last big week of the season will not be a Gothic horror. It is Old Masters week. Old Masters are seen as the stable sheet-anchor of the market, whereas Impressionists are seen as the volatile leading edge. Paradoxically, it was last week's Impressionists that showed signs of buoyancy while the most recent Old Master sales, in New York in May, unexpectedly threw wobblies.

Consider Sotheby's sparky Impressionist sale on Tuesday, against the background of Old Master results. Sotheby's got away Manet's Folies Bergere sketch, est pounds 3m, for pounds 4,401,500 and took pounds 4,841,500 for an outstanding Monet poplar painting est pounds 2- pounds 3m (not pounds 200,000- pounds 300,000 as stated here last week). The sale totalled 78 per cent by value, 65 per cent by lot.

But Old Masters flopped in New York in May. Christie's sold only 46 per cent by value, 62 per cent by lot. Sotheby's fared as badly: 59 per cent by value, 49 per cent by lot. London's Old Master sales the previous month had been much stronger: 80-90 per cent at Sotheby's, 70-80 per cent at Christie's. Unlike Sotheby's, Christie's Impressionists in London last week turned in the worst result for a decade (52 per cent sold by value, 51 per cent by lot), confirming the picture of a volatile market.

Will this week's Old Masters indicate where the market is going? The fly in the ointment is Velazquez's The Immaculate Conception, bought as from the 'circle of Velazquez' by the Paris dealer Charles Bailly for pounds 2.1m in 1990 and now offered by Sotheby's as a work by the master's hand at an estimated pounds 6m, Wednesday (10.30am). The trade is not impressed.

The Japanese are unlikely to come to the aid of the market. Although there are signs that they are back in the saleroom - carrying off the top Impressionists at Sotheby's last week, and visible at last month's Japanese, Chinese and print sales - they find Western Old Masters hard to understand.

A curio in Christie's South Kensington sale, Thursday (10.30am), is an early 19th-century copy of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, hopefully estimated at pounds 1,200- pounds 1,800. Young aristocrats bought them on grand tours, rather like postcards. The Mona Lisa is not the most widely copied Old Master: Raphael's Donna de la Sedia is. Half a dozen Mona Lisas crop up at London auctions every year: average price pounds 1,500. Shown here: next Thursday's offering and two good examples sold at Sotheby's in 1984. One, undated, for pounds 1,980, the other, about 1700, for pounds 3,850. Spot the difference. Sotheby's main Old Masters sale is Wednesday (10.30am), Christie's Friday (11am): Christie's Old Master drawings, Tuesday (11am), Sotheby's, Monday (10.30am).

Next week's antiquity sales, the biggest and most splendid for years, far outshine the Old Masters. Collectors pinched by the recession and encouraged by December's sales (Christie's 91 per cent by value, 75 per cent by lot, and Sotheby's sell-out of the Hirschmann vases) have consigned scores of exquisite attic vases and amphorae. At Sotheby's main sale, Thursday (2.30pm), you can bid pounds 600- pounds 800 for a 4th-century BC south Italian/Greek pottery fish plate painted by De Bellis, or pounds 30,000- pounds 40,000 for a 520-510BC amphora. Roman gold earrings: pounds 800- pounds 1,000. The Momirovic collection at Sotheby's, Thursday (3.30pm), has vases from pounds 8,000 to pounds 80,000. The 216- lot Benzian collection of ancient and Islamic glass, also Sotheby's, Thursday (10.30am), is estimated from pounds 800.

Star lot in Christie's antiquity sale is a 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief; one of two discovered in the tuckshop of Canford School in Dorset and identified as the missing wall slab from the north-west palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859BC); estimate pounds 750,000. The sale, Wednesday (10.30am, Canford reliefs 12.45pm), includes a collection of gold jewellery and a stylised hump-backed Amlash bull, 10th-8th century BC, at pounds 7,500- pounds 9,000, plus seven phallic amulets, 1st- 3rd century AD, pounds 700- pounds 1,000.

A horn, thought in medieval times to be that of a unicorn (more accurately a narwhal, a small Arctic whale), appears in Christie's European sculpture sale, Tuesday (2.30pm), estimated at pounds 250,000.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

Glasgow: Crazy annual golf sale: a blank score card for the Champion Belt at Prestwick, around 1865, is est pounds 3,000- pounds 5,000. Friday (11am). Christie's (041 332 8134).

Hereford: On-site contents of Belmont Abbey School, Belmont. Woodworking, metalworking and pottery equipment, computers, rugby, archery, athletics and canoeing equipment, contents of dormitory blocks, Thursday (10.30am). Alcocks (0432 344322).

Stourbridge: About 580 lots of glass, including two pieces attributed to Jules Barbe, Wednesday (10.30am): 650 lots of porcelain, including Imari, majolica, Thursday (10.30am). Giles Haywood (0384 370891).

Aylsham, Norfolk: Collectables - tinplate, radios, gramophones, toys, dolls, teddies, fishing rods, stamps, coins and an Austin J40 pedal car pounds 500- pounds 600, Thursday (10.30am). Books, maps and prints, Friday (10.30am). G A Key (0263 733195).

Hampstead: London Borough of Camden surplus - commercial vehicle spares, catering equipment, furniture - at Corporate Services Department, 1 Cressy Road, NW3, Tuesday (10am). Hawbery King (081-343 7373).

FAIRS

Sandown Park: Indoor antiques, 550 stands, Tuesday. Wonder Whistle Enterprises (071-249 4050).

Stafford: Giant Summer One Day, Bingley Hall, County Showground, Thursday. Bowman (0532 843333).

Countrywide: Antiques Trade Gazette (071- 930 4957) and Government Auction News (071-928 9001, hotline 0891 887700).

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