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Fragonard Portrait Fetches Record $27.9 Million in London

A "fantasy" portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d'Harcourt by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The 18th-century painting was among 85 works from the collection of the German-born philanthropist, the late Dr Gustav Rau, being auctioned by Bonhams in London on Dec. 5 to benefit the Foundation of the German Committee for UNICEF. Source: Bonhams via Bloomberg

A painting by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard sold tonight in London for a record 17.1 million pounds ($27.9 million) at a Bonhams auction.

Fragonard’s fantasy portrait of François-Henri, the fifth duc d’Harcourt, was bought by an undisclosed client, Julian Roup, a spokesman for the auction house, said in an interview. Estimated at a minimum hammer price of 15 million pounds, it was among more than 80 works from the collection of the late philanthropist Gustav Rau being auctioned to benefit Unicef’s German branch.

“This is clearly an important picture,” Jean-Luc Baroni, a London-based art dealer, said in an interview. “It’s exceptionally rare and it had a high, daring estimate. It’s a very strange market at the moment: People are prepared to pay almost anything for certain things.”

The price was the highest achieved for an Old Master painting at auction this year, and a record for any painting sold at Bonhams, the company said. The previous salesroom record for the artist was 5.3 million pounds, paid in 1999 for Fragonard’s panel painting “Le Verrou” at Christie’s International Plc in London.

Fragonard (1732-1806), a master of the French rococo movement, is part of the small group of artists that can attract multimillion-dollar bidding from the international buyers who have entered the market for Old Master paintings.

‘Fantasy’ Works

In his late 30s, Fragonard painted about 20 “fantasy” portraits of half-length figures in fancy dress that have been admired for their freedom of expression, according to Bonhams. Thought to be one of only three left in private collections, this portrait of an 18th-century French general was bought by Rau for 340,000 pounds at Sotheby’s in London in 1971.

Rau, the son of a Stuttgart industrialist, founded a hospital in Africa in the 1980s and compiled a collection of museum-quality artworks on his return visits to Europe.

On his death in 2002, he bequeathed almost 800 works to Unicef, which began selling them this year. The charity’s ownership of the majority of the collection has been the subject of several legal challenges since Rau died.

Bonhams’s Rau Unicef sale raised 19.4 million pounds with 53 percent of the 85 lots successful, the auction company said.

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