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A decision should have come last week but the Culture department said: “This is an unusual case and, given the complex issues which remain outstanding, the Minister will not be able to reach a decision as to what constitutes a compensating offer by August 27 [the deadline].”

Controversy has surrounded the Duke of Northumberland’s disposal of the picture since the announcement of the painting’s sale to an overseas buyer. The National Gallery, whose own expert had identified the painting as being by Raphael, resulting in a dramatic reassessment of its value, have had the picture on long-term loan and believed that they were entitled to first refusal if a decision were ever taken to sell it.

The gallery bid was boosted in July by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £11.5m towards the purchase. Together with approximately £9.5m pledged in a public appeal, the gallery hope it will be enough to persuade the Duke to sell it to them instead.