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Painting seized by Nazis fetches more than $3.3 million at auction

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A 17th century Dutch masterpiece that graced the collections of Catherine the Great's art adviser and Russia's Hermitage Museum before being seized by the Nazis sold for nearly $3.4 million at auction, a record for the artist Gerrit van Honthorst.

"The Duet," which was confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish art collector Bruno Spiro and sold in 1969 to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, fetched $3,371,750 including commission at Christie's Old Master auction on Wednesday.

The painting, which the Montreal museum returned to Spiro's heirs in April, has been estimated to sell for between $2 million and $3 million.

Nicholas Hall, Christie's co-chairman of Old Masters and 19th century art, called the 1624 work "a superlative painting on all levels, with its composition, condition and provenance."

Hall said the painting attracted multiple bidders, with four competing above the $2 million mark. The buyer was Johnny van Haefton Ltd., a London dealer specializing in Dutch and Flemish Old Master art.

Executed at the height of Honthorst's career, the painting is among the finest examples of the kind of nocturnal revelry for which the Dutch artist is celebrated, Christie's said.

It depicts a theatrically clad man and woman standing together over an open book, singing by candlelight. The woman's exposed breast and revealing garb, as well as the Utrecht setting, suggest that she is a courtesan and the man her client.

"The Duet" belonged to the collection of Count Alexander Stroganov of St. Petersburg, Catherine the Great's art adviser, during the 19th century. It was eventually housed at the Hermitage Museum before being nationalized after the Russian Revolution. The Soviet regime auctioned it in 1931 in Berlin and Spiro bought it soon after.

After World War Two it passed through several German private collections before being acquired by the Montreal museum.

(Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Doina Chiacu)

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