Heiress sells cabinet that's too big for her home - and makes £10.5m profit

The Cabinet was considered the greatest Florentine work of art of its day when it was made from ebony and precious stones in 1726. In 1990, it became the most expensive piece of furniture in the world when it fetched£8.5m at auction.

And now the so-called Badminton Cabinet has done it again, by breaking its own world record. It fetched a staggering £19m at Christie's in London yesterday.

The cabinet, made for the Beaufort family of Badminton House in Gloucestershire, was arguably the most important work of decorative art to have been commissioned by a British patron in three centuries.

So when the family decided to sell in 1990 to settle inheritance tax bills, it provoked a row that has had ramifications for Britain's museums and galleries ever since.

Campaigners were desperate to keep the piece in the UK but could not raise enough money to match a bid from Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born art historian and widow of Seward Johnson, of the Johnson pharmaceutical company. This year, she decided to sell the 13ft-high cabinet because it was too large for her new home.

But no British museum or gallery even considered bidding this time. Acquisitions budgets which were modest by world standards in 1990 have been slashed to virtually nothing in the years since.

The successful bidder yesterday was Johan Kraeftner on behalf of Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein whose family's private art collections are housed in the Liechtenstein Museum which opened in Vienna, Austria, this year.

Dr Kraeftner, the museum's director, said they were delighted. "I tried to bid as fast as I could to secure this magnificent object for our collection. We look forward to welcoming the international public to view the Badminton Cabinet in Vienna where it will be on permanent display from spring 2005."

The cabinet was commissioned by 19-year-old Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort, in Florence. Thirty craftsmen are thought to have been involved in producing the cabinet, made of ebony and decorated with precious stones including lapis lazuli, agate, red and green jasper and amethyst quartz. It then remained at Badminton House until family members decided to sell.

In Vienna, it will be shown as the centrepiece of the Liechtenstein Museum's strong collection of more than 15 pieces of pietra dura - delicate inlay work using precious stones which was a feature of Florentine workshops from the end of the 16th century.

Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which had been involved in trying to save the piece in 1990, said it was excellent news that the Badminton Cabinet would go on display to the public. "But this sale highlights once again the serious problem British institutions face raising the money to keep objects of such historical importance in this country."

Charles Cator, chairman of Christie's UK and international head of its furniture department, said the price reflected the magnificence of such a famous and admired work of art.

"Yet again the Badminton Cabinet has pushed the boundaries of the art market. The cabinet transcends the boundaries of furniture, combining architecture, sculpture and painting in pietra dura, resulting in a unique masterpiece." For the man with the hammer, Dermot Chichester, Christie's UK co-chairman, it was the most expensive lot he has ever sold. There were four bidders. The loss of the cabinet to the nation 14 years ago was highly disappointing for museums and galleries because few items that go for auction combine such unique artistic merit and strong British connections. But museum directors have virtually no money for acquisitions these days and any attempt to save the work would have required the support of a wealthy donor. This time, too, unlike last, there could be no stay of execution in the form of a temporary export ban under the so-called Waverley rules as once works have left Britain, these do not apply.