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A bizarre sequence of events surrounds the cover lot of Christie’s South Kensington’s Vintage Film Posters sale scheduled for March 4, a six-sheet première poster featuring Jane Russell in a famously sultry pose for Howard Hughes’s film The Outlaw.

The poster, which is 6ft 9in (2.05m) square, was catalogued as “the only known copy to exist”, but it later became clear that the owners, Robert and Patricia League, had another copy in their possession.

In a signed statement to Christie’s, the Leagues admitted discovering the second poster after consigning the original for sale.

“Having considered the various options open to us, we have made the determination that we would destroy the second copy, and can confirm that this has been done,” the statement adds.

An American vintage film poster collector, David Kusumoto, told the Antiques Trade Gazette that he and fellow collectors on the Internet news group MoPo (The Movie Poster Discussion Group) were outraged at the statement, saying that in the popular arts world, it was akin to destroying one of Van Gogh’s many sunflower paintings to enhance rarity.

“Whether available in one or two copies, this item remains rare and would still command a high figure at auction,” Mr Kusumoto told the Gazette. “Hence, in my view, the practice of destroying art to achieve rarity is abhorrent at worst and questionable at best.”

Though feelings were running high among the movie memorabilia enthusiasts last week, casual browsers remained oblivious to this behind-the-scenes drama.

Serious enquirers were being sent a copy of the Leagues’ statement revealing that they had taken drastic steps to preserve the status of their ‘unique’ poster.

Whether their actions will pay off in purely commercial terms remains to be seen, but off-screen scandal rarely does anything to harm the takings at the box office.

The Outlaw remains a film that everyone has heard of but few have seen. It has thrived on controversy from its première in San Francisco in 1943 when it ran for only a week before the censors caught up with its sexually explicit content and stepped in to ban it.