The collection, which was expected to make more than pounds 25m, was the biggest belonging to a single owner to be auctioned and included 31 Old Master paintings, a pounds 3m medieval manuscript, furniture, suits of armour and musical instruments from the 16th and 17th centuries. Such was the excitement generated that Christie's installed 70 phone lines for telephone bidders - big sales normally have only 10.
The works were stolen from the palaces of Baron Louis de Rothschild and his brother Baron Alphons in Austria in 1938 and, although they were recovered after the Second World War, the Austrian government passed a law banning their sale abroad. Five months ago, the ban was repealed as part of a drive to tackle the issue of art looted during the war and Bettina Looram, the eldest daughter of Baron Alphons, asked Christie's to sell the collection. A spokeswoman for Christie's said yesterday: "[The Rothschilds] no longer have the houses they owned before the Nazis took over and so they have nowhere to put the collection, which is one of the reasons why they are selling."
During the 18th century the Rothschilds were part of the Austrian court circle and advised the ruling powers on finance and bond strategies. After the French Revolution, the various branches of the family, which had settled in Paris, London, Vienna and Germany, merged as owners of the biggest European banks. By 1830 the name was synonymous with great wealth and the treasures in their palaces were legendary.
Much of the collection, including an inlaid Louis XVI commode that is expected to fetch more than pounds 2m, has royal provenance. The sale also includes a Frans Hals painting, estimated at pounds 5m. The cheapest item is an inlaid guitar case with a pounds 500 estimate.
When Baron Nathaniel died childless in 1905, the collection passed to his brother Albert, who in turned passed it on to Louis and Alphons. But less than 24 hours after the Nazis stormed into Austria in 1938, the SS had stolen the lot.
When the SS went to arrest Baron Louis, he sent down the message that he was having dinner and could they possibly make an appointment. They obliged. Once in prison, his valet was permitted to decorate his cell with tapestries. The manservant also delivered orchids regularly. Alphons had fled the country the week before the Nazis arrived.
The collection was stored in salt mines and recovered by American soldiers from a Tyrolean ski resort in 1945. When the Rothschilds refused to return to Austria after the war, the government imposed the ban and the collection was kept by the state and displayed in Vienna.
Patrick Leperlier, writing in the Christie's magazine, said: "One of the unifying themes in the history of the collections of the Rothschild family has been their consistency in acquiring some of the very finest works of art in their respective fields."Reuse content