International Art Market: Islamic masterpiece sets record

THE AUCTION sensation of the autumn season has been the appearance of an 11th or 12th-century bronze sculpture of a lion, 3ft high and almost 3ft long, which Christie's described as 'the most important Islamic work of art to appear at auction in a lifetime'.

The London auction house suggested it would fetch more than pounds 500,000, but in the event six bidders battled for possession to carry the price to pounds 2,421,500, a record figure for Islamic art.

It is thought to have been made in Moorish Spain. Smaller bronzes have come to light in archaeological digs but the star turn of the genre is a griffin, 4in taller than the lion, which once graced the east gable of Pisa Cathedral and is now shown off in its museum. The lion's front haunches are engraved with griffins while the griffin's are engraved with lions, suggesting they may have started life together.

The lion belonged to one of the 'great European families, which has many branches, but is not associated with collecting Islamic art', according to William Robinson of Christie's. It first came to his attention after a dealer who had seen it and thought it might be worth pounds 20,000 brought a 'bad photocopy of a bad photograph' into Christie's.

Overall, the auction results of the autumn season have been much stronger than last year. Collectors have paid high prices for exceptional items and pounced whenever attractive works looked like being available at bargain prices.

In the last two weeks in New York there has been very active bidding on Impressionist, modern and contemporary pictures, but prices seldom ran ahead of estimate. The Seeger collection of Picassos at Sotheby's and the Seligmann collection of Surrealists at Christie's were both 100 per cent sold because the auction houses had been allowed to set reserves below market levels.

Christie's New York underlined the unneven pattern of bidding by setting a new auction price record for a photograph at dollars 398,500 ( pounds 276,256), almost double the previous high, in a sale that saw 43 per cent of lots unsold. The image that stirred such competition was by the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and depicted the hands of his artist wife, sewing. It was titled Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait - Hand With Thimble.

There was another '100 per cent' result in Zurich when Sotheby's offered six sessions of Greek and Roman coins on behalf of two investment funds set up in the 1980s by Merrill Lynch. There were no reserves, so the fund managers and investors had accepted the inevitability of selling at a loss.

As a result, Sotheby's had 10,000 advance bids on the 2,000 lots, but prices seldom topped estimates. An aureus of Quintus Labienus, who reigned from 40-39BC, had been bought for the fund at 270,000 Swiss francs ( pounds 126,000) in 1989. It was estimated by Sotheby's at a bargain Sfr100,000-150,000 ( pounds 47,000- pounds 70,000) and sold for Sfr176,000 francs ( pounds 82,000). The top price was Sfr528,000 ( pounds 247,000) for an Aureus of Brutus struck with two daggers to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar; it was bought for almost twice as much (dollars 550,000, or pounds 381,000) in 1990.

In Germany, Sotheby's had a sensational success with its sale of surplus furnishings and works of art at the Schloss St Emmeram in Regensburg, ancestral home of the Princes of Thurn und Taxis. The nine- day sale made pounds 12.9m, or double the estimates, with Germans, and especially Bavarians, competing deliriously for souvenirs of a great family.

Another highlight was a price record for English ceramics, the dollars 453,500 ( pounds 304,650) paid at Sotheby's in New York for a Staffordshire creamware group of a family of four at the tea table, attended by a black footman; it dated from 1750-60 and was bought by an American collector.

(Photograph omitted)