A PAINTING of Elizabeth I which hung in a room at Aylesbury Crown Court for 50 years has been sold for almost £2.6million at auction.
The earliest known full-length portrait of the Virgin Queen, painted in the 16th century by Steven van der Meulen, was estimated to sell for about 700,000 but it went for an unprecedented 2,596,500.
The two-metre tall painting was a gift to the former sheriff of Buckinghamshire, Griffith Hampden, from Queen Elizabeth I after she visited the family home.
The family displayed the painting until about 1957 when they loaned it to Bucks County Council to hang in the Judge's Lodgings at Aylesbury Crown Court.
A few months ago the Hampden Estate announced they had decided to sell it and it was sent to Sotheby's auctioneers for restoration.
A spokesman from Sotheby's said that when the little-known work emerged it sparked interest from across the globe.
"The work, which had for most of its life remained hidden from the public eye, attracted interest from six determined bidders who together drove the price well beyond the pre-sale estimate of 700,000 to 1,000,000. In a room tense with anticipation, the hammer finally fell to a bid from Philip Mould Fine Paintings Ltd, London."
The painting is of special importance because it is thought to have been created to help the queen in her quest to find a royal suitor - an advertisement of her beauty and fertility.
She is shown against a background of fruits and flowers, and holding a carnation, a symbol of betrothal, so the painting would have signalled all the right messages of wealth, fidelity, beauty, and fertility to potential suitors, but still the queen never married.
Emmeline Hallmark, head of Sotheby's British Paintings department, said: "We were thrilled to see this magnificent portrait attract all the interest and competition that it so justly deserved."
By loaning the painting to Bucks County Council the Hampden Estate enabled many people to see it when it would otherwise have been hidden from the public.
Functions such as award ceremonies and civic receptions in the Judge's Lodgings enabled members of the public to see the rare painting, probably with no idea of its true worth.
It will now go on display in the Philip Mould Gallery in London.
The Hampden Estate Trustees were not willing to disclose what the money will now be spent on.
Chris Williams, chief executive at BCC, said they were proud to have looked after the painting and had considered buying it.
"I asked museum staff to investigate whether we could raise a sum of money we didn't have, but given the time we had available we couldn't. If it was sold to an overseas bidder we would have talked to a committee with a view to try to raise money through public subscription and lottery grants. I couldn't justify asking the council to pay this amount on a painting, important as it was."
o London's National Gallery will be the home for one of Bucks County Museum's Flemish paintings for three months.
The Courtyard at Ruben's House by Anton Gnther Gheringh is part of the Discoveries exhibition until February 10.
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