Fine art vies with the mundane at pounds 506,000 Maxwell auction

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A BUGGED table-lamp used by Robert Maxwell, the disgraced tycoon, in his own home, sold at Sotheby's yesterday for pounds 402.

Its catalogue entry, which showed an estimate of only pounds 60 to pounds 80, seemed to keep the device a secret; however, a Sotheby's spokeswoman said that the bug, with two microphones, was not detected immediately.

The lamp was among more than 600 items, including elegant furniture and works of art, from Headington Hill Hall in Oxfordshire, once described by Maxwell as 'the finest council house' in the land. The auction raised pounds 506,165, against an expected pounds 300,000, for the receivers to Maxwell's estate.

Hundreds of curio hunters descended on Sotheby's. Here was their chance to buy a Parker pen chewed by the man himself, to cook with Maxwell's very own deep-fat fryer and to get fit on the exercise-bike used, or not, by this larger-than-life character. They sold for pounds 2,472, pounds 74.75 and pounds 172.50 respectively.

Although Maxwell's physique might not have been the bike's best advertisement, the German woman who bought it said it would have cost her three times as much in the shops. She was uninterested in the previous owner.

Most of the buyers felt differently. Howard Fox from Nottinghamshire bought a glass horse for pounds 344 because it was inscribed with Maxwell's name. Another buyer wanted a painting of Maxwell's jet because 'he's history'. A property dealer from Trowbridge, who spent about pounds 3,000 on various items, said he admired Maxwell as a 'man who goes from nothing to where he reached'.

Among the more personal items sold was the Military Cross presented by Field-Marshal Montgomery for 'gallant and distinguished service in North- west Europe'. Grouped with a number of his other war medals, it fetched pounds 16,100, against an estimated pounds 1,500 to pounds 2,000.

One man, fast asleep in one of Maxwell's leather armchairs, woke up when the household effects came up for sale. As a Magimix food processor was placed on a pedestal more used to Monets and Matisses, hands shot up everywhere. Many of the buyers clearly had not been to an auction before. As they shouted out bids, James Miller, the auctioneer, had to calm them down. 'I can only take one bid at a time,' he said. The Magimix made pounds 634.

A painting by the Israeli artist Reuven Rubin sold for pounds 60,900 to a private buyer (estimate pounds 15,000- pounds 25,000). However, not everyone was quite so enamoured with the sale. One woman said: 'These people are vultures picking over the corpse.' A man said: 'They'll be digging his body up next and selling that.'

(Photograph omitted)