Art Market: Paintings kept in icy church fetch pounds 272,500

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THREE 16th-century paintings estimated to be worth about pounds 500,000 and insured for a mere pounds 250 by a remote Shropshire church, were offered for sale at Sotheby's yesterday.

The cost of proper insurance and security in a 12th- century building that was so cold in winter that icicles of condensation formed on the pictures, forced St Martin at Little Ness, north-west of Shrewsbury, to bring them to auction.

The Lamentation of Christ, from the circle of Durer, sold for pounds 232,500 (estimate, pounds 150,000- pounds 200,000) to Alfred Bader, the Milwaukee collector and dealer; and two related panels of 1519, depicting the saints Christopher and George, sold for pounds 40,000 to Peter Silverman, the New York collector and dealer.

However, the third picture, The Crucifixion, circa 1500, did not make its pounds 300,000 top estimate. Sotheby's suggested that this was because its 'heavily religious' subject matter made it a difficult picture commercially.

Afterwards, the Rev Robin Bradbury said: 'I don't know whether to celebrate or cry. When I took over the church in 1983, I knew that, because of their great value, these were pictures the church could not look after . . .The Church is not in the business of art preservation.'

The paintings were donated, probably about the turn of the century, by the iron-making Darby family of Coalbrookdale. A descendant gave her support to the sale (made on behalf of the Diocese of Lichfield).

Around pounds 60,000 of the sale proceeds will pay for repairs to the church, with much of the rest going towards a housing scheme in the village. Mr Bradbury believes that his is the first church to sell treasures primarily for community work.

Christie's antiquities sale yesterday saw an Etruscan bronze cista sell for pounds 106,000. The piece was bought from Northwick Park collection in 1965 for 2,100 guineas ( pounds 2,205). The auction house pointed out that the whole of the Northwick sale (some 500 items) was pounds 99,022 - less than the single piece fetched.

Such is the rarity of fine portraits of the Roman emperor Caligula that buyers ignored Christie's pounds 30,000 top estimate for a Roman bronze portrait bust of him, taking bidding to pounds 265,500. It went to an anonymous buyer.

(Photograph omitted)