Sale offers £2.7m 'testament to Sylvester's taste'

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The Independent Online

The private collection of Britain's greatest post-war critic and curator of modern art fetched £2.7m at auction yesterday, nearly three times the pre-sale estimate.

An eclectic range of sculptures, paintings and objects including African tribal art and Flemish tapestries collected by David Sylvester until his death last year had been expected to make £1m. But fierce bidding for the remarkable collection in a packed sale-room at Sotheby's in London sent prices soaring.

A spokeswoman said the collection had aroused an enormous amount of interest from people in the art world and had contributed to the sale-room being crammed to bursting. "We're delighted with the results of the sale which stands as a testament to David Sylvester's exceptional taste and rich eclecticism," she said. "The collection epitomised his delight in the well-made artefact whether from antiquity or from the modern art powerhouses of London or New York."

The collection of nearly 150 lots was the more remarkable because friends said he rarely had enormous amounts of money to spend, but was adept at buying at the right time. But it did include gifts from several artists including Frank Auerbach, R B Kitaj, Willem de Kooning, Claes Oldenburg, Miro and Picasso.

The experts thought it possible that bidding was further encouraged yesterday by the inclusion of antiquities and tribal art which Sotheby's normally offers for sale in America, not the UK. Among the highlights of the sale was an Egyptian sandstone figure of King Mentuhotep III, from around 2000 BC, which sold for £795,500, more than double its estimate of £300,000. It was found in the Thirties in the Temple of Monthu at Armant on the west bank of the Nile, and combined the features of the king with the characteristics of the god Osiris.

A work by Willem de Kooning, Untitled (Woman), went for £58,000 nearly double the higher estimate, as did the fifth-century torso of a Buddha which sold for £157,500.

In one of the most stunning bidding battles, a grey sandstone torso from the 11th century sold for £179,000, against a pre-sale estimate of £6,000 to £8,000.

David Sylvester was born in London into a family of Russian-Jewish silver dealers and his passion for art was sparked by a black and white illustration of the Matisse masterpiece, La Danse.

After failed attempts to become a painter himself, he turned to writing and became a respected critic. He established a close friendship with the painter Francis Bacon, the subject of his last book, Looking Back at Bacon.

But he also became known as a brilliant curator of exhibitions, including of works by Giacometti and Magritte. Curiously, given his close identification with modern art, Sylvester's personal art collection included as many ancient pieces as modern. He did not hide them away; instead, visitors to his home would find works by de Kooning hung alongside African Yoruba, Ngere and Dan masks with valuable Ottoman carpets on the floor.

The sale coincides with an exhibition at Tate Modern of a personal selection of works chosen for exhibition by Sylvester before he died last June from cancer. He was 76.