Records hammered in pounds 57m sale of looted Nazi art

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EIGHT WORLD auction records were broken in London last night when a collection of Rothschild art fetched more than any other in the history of auctions in Europe. A 16th-century prayer book fetched pounds 8.5m, a world auction record for an illuminated manuscript, and a Frans Hals portrait sold for pounds 8.2m, the highest price raised for any work by him.

A Louis XVI commode fetched pounds 7m, almost three times its estimate and a record for French furniture. A Louis XVI clock sold for pounds 1.9m, a new high for a clock sold at auction.

The items were among 218 lots sold at Christie's in an auction of art which was stolen from the Rothschilds by the Nazis.

The sale, which Christie's described as one of the most important in its 243-year history, fetched a total of pounds 57,716,497, more than double what the auction house had hoped to raise. Lord Charles Hindlip, chairman of Christie's, said most of the items were purchased by European buyers.

The collection included 31 Old Master paintings, furniture, suits of armour and musical instruments from the 16th and 17th centuries. Such was the excitement generated that Christie's installed 70 lines for telephone bidders; big sales normally have 10.

Fourteen lots went for more than pounds 1m each, including a second Hals painting, Portrait of a Gentleman, which went for pounds 2.2m. Many of the less expensive items outstripped their estimates, such as theMunich Musket-Rest, which sold for pounds 188,500, almost four times the price expected.

The works of art 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 Five months ago the ban was repealed as part of a drive to tackle the issue of art looted during the war, and Bettina Looram, eldest daughter of Baron Alphons, asked Christie's to sell the collection.

A Christie's spokeswoman 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. 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 artistic treasures.

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 a message that he was having dinner and could they make an appointment. They obliged. Once in prison, his valet was permitted to decorate the cell with tapestries. He also delivered orchids regularly. Alphons had fled the country the week before the Nazis arrived.