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"Artemis" fetches a staggering sum

Museum_art_sale If Helen's was the face that launched a thousand ships, Artemis is surely the goddess who raised a thousand eyebrows in Buffalo and the art world at large.

"Artemis and the Stag" -- lovingly crafted by a Roman sculptor some 2,000 years ago -- served as the focal point of rage and plenty of outspoken opinions on the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's decision last year to auction off 207 items from its permanent collection. Its sale Thursday at Sotheby's marks a symbolic -- if not final -- end to the Albright-Knox deaccession controversy that raised one of the more vitriolic debates among art lovers in Buffalo's history.

What lends even more gravity to the importance of the statue is the fact that, at $25.5 million, it ranks as the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction, along with the most expensive antiquity, and the 24 other items sold along with it Thursday bring the gallery's total haul to about $64.2 million.

News from the auction floor was spotty. A spokesperson said the sale took more than 10 minutes, with the bidding increasing in $100,000 increments and confined to only four people. There were, it seems, no contending phone bidders, so it's safe to say that the atmosphere in the room was likely extremely intense.

Sixty-four million bucks is a big chunk of change, and (if you believed the Albright-Knox's early estimates) about $39 million more than gallery officials were expecting.

The Artemis has been plastered on the covers of Sotheby's catalogs, full-page stories in The New York Times and this newspaper, and generally praised throughout the ages for its beauty, execution and rarity. (Most bronzes from the Hellenistic or Early Roman period exist only as Roman marble copies, and very few authentic and high-quality examples remain).

Now that it's almost certainly heading off to Europe -- as the bidder was identified as European -- it'll be fascinating to see where exactly it ends up, and whether it will ever again be on public view.

But this sale -- and total profits alone -- are sure to rekindle feelings of animosity among those opposed to the gallery's divestiture of a great deal of its important ancient art in order to purchase modern and contemporary works.

The question now is: with all that loot, what on Earth is the gallery going to buy?   

--Colin Dabkowski

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