It is believed that a British businessman has offered pounds 3.5m for Peasants Going to Market - pounds 1m more than many expected it to fetch at auction.
It is also understood that the buyer has agreed to share the painting's display between the college, in Surrey, and various British public galleries. This would be welcomed by the many who have bitterly criticised the college for ignoring the wishes of the college's founder, the Victorian philanthropist Thomas Holloway. The Gainsborough was bought for the college in 1883.
A spokesman for the Museums and Galleries Commission said: 'While we deplore the sale of works of art by a public institution, against the wishes of a benefactor, we are relieved a British businessman has stepped forward to save the picture for the nation.'
The buyer is said to insist on anonymity. However, a spokesman for the college said: 'We have nothing to say. When we have . . . we will be in touch. At the moment, it is down for auction at Christie's' Christie's also insisted that the sale is still scheduled for December.
The Gainsborough is the second of three pictures that the college is selling to raise funds for the restoration and upkeep of the college's Grade I listed Founder's Building in Egham, Surrey.
Last February, it sold Turner's Van Tromp Going About to Please His Masters, Ships at Sea, Getting a Good Wetting. It went to the Getty Museum in California for a record pounds 11m. A Constable is also earmarked for sale.
One opponent of the sales said that in 1990, the college asked the Charity Commission to allow sales of three pictures, to raise at least pounds 15m. Through selling two pictures, he explained, they have raised pounds 14.5m. 'For them to go ahead and sell the third picture, having raised almost that sum, is a scandal. When they have sold the Constable, they will still need more . . . This is a terrible breach of trust.'
Only 4 per cent of the 6,500 items sold through Sotheby's by the Princess von Thurn und Taxis at Schloss St Emmeram, Regensburg, Germany, failed to sell. The sale totalled DM 31.4m ( pounds 12.87m), twice the amount expected. The most expensive item was a painting by Olga Wisinger-Florian, an Austrian Impressionist, which made pounds 139,113 (estimate pounds 12,000- pounds 18,000).
The winner of the pounds 20,000 John Moores Liverpool biennial open art prize is Peter Doig, 34.