Star painting of sale withdrawn at last minute: Old Master had been expected to fetch 1.2m pounds , writes Dalya Alberge

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THE ART world was yesterday confused by news that the star lot in Christie's Old Master sale - an important painting by the Italian Guido Reni, estimated to fetch pounds 1.2m - was withdrawn at the last minute.

A Christie's spokeswoman said that it happened at the request of the vendor, Julian Byng, whose ancestor, George Byng (1764-1847), of Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire, bought the painting at Christie's in 1840 for 200 guineas.

Although George Byng, an MP for Middlesex, was remembered in an obituary as 'neither learned, eloquent nor profound', he was a popular man with a sharp eye for art. Also of the Byng family was John the admiral, executed in 1757 after failing to relieve Minorca.

The Penitent Magdalen, an early 1630s painting, was to have been the latest in a series of sales of spectacular pictures from Wrotham Park - the remains of one of the great British collections, which is not open to the public. For example, Christie's sold Pieter de Hooch's Courtyard of a House in Delft last December for pounds 4.4m to the Noortman Gallery of London and Maastricht, and Murillo's St Joseph and the Christ Child for pounds 2.4m in 1990.

The religious subject of the Reni may have limited the number of buyers, but, as one dealer put it, 'it is Reni at his best'. Two other Wrotham paintings were sold at Christie's yesterday - including a wooded landscape by Paul Bril (1554-1626), for pounds 551,500 (estimate pounds 350,000).

Earlier this week, Christie's furniture sale included several items from the same seller. Last autumn, it sold a pair of celadon vases with Louis XV ormolu mounts for pounds 242,000 and a bronze Venus and Adonis (circa 1700) for pounds 132,000.

Sales by the Byng family are not just a recent occurrence: George Byng sent 12 works to Christie's in 1813, and a Parmigianino, Portrait of a Collector (now in the National Gallery) was sold at there in 1977.

The rest of Christie's sale was more successful than this time last year. A Guardi, Ladies and Gentlemen in Carnival Costume in the Ridotto, Venice, sold for pounds 606,500, and a Salomon van Ruysdael, Winter Landscape, made pounds 705,500 - a record for the artist.

At Sotheby's, Rainer Zeitz, a London dealer in medieval and renaissance art, has paid pounds 1.26m for a Renaissance masterpiece, a bronze figure of Young Hercules Reading, circa 1495, by Pier Jacopo Alari- Bonacolsi, called Antico.

(Photograph omitted)