A set of rare paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, who had gifted them to a British missionary and friend Leonard Elmhirst for his private collection in 1939, was sold for a record £1.6 million at an auction here on Tuesday, exceeding the pre-auction estimate of £250,000.

The 12 paintings, described as “exceptional” by Sotheby's, had been in the collection of the Darlington Hall Trust in Devon, South England, established by Elmhirst and his wife Dorothy.

A Sotheby's spokesperson said the bidding was “extremely competitive,” with one Tagore painting — an untitled portrait of a woman —fetching £313, 250, said to be a record for the artist at an auction. Names of the buyers were not disclosed.

The sale was part of Sotheby's auction of South Asian art, which together fetched £5.5 million and included works of leading Indian artists such as Syed Haider Raza and Francis Souza.

There had been concern in India over the auction, with art lovers seeking the government's intervention to stop it. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him to take steps to bring the paintings back to India.

Elmhirst was closely associated with India, first as a missionary and then as secretary and friend of Tagore, whom he met in America while studying modern farming techniques that could be used in India. His experiences in India and Tagore's influence were said to have to have shaped his work.