Right: Der Berggeist (The Mountain Spirit) an ink, watercolour and gouache painting by Josef Madlener.

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The work of German painter and illustrator Josef Madlener (1881-1967), whose pictures tend to sell for quite modest sums, this picture means a great deal more to Tolkien fans. The image of a seated figure in a broad-brimmed hat and long cloak, talking to a white fawn that nuzzles his outstretched hand, was Tolkien's inspiration for Gandalf.

Humphrey Burton's 1977 biography suggests that Tolkien bought the postcard while on holiday in Switzerland in 1911, but when Manfred Zimmerman, researching an article for the journal Mythlore, interviewed Madlener's daughter in 1983, he was told that the painting dates from the 1920s. Carpenter's assertion was based on notes on the envelope in which Tolkien kept the card, but the really significant fact is that throughout his life Tolkien carefully preserved the postcard in an envelope marked 'Origin of Gandalf'.

Zimmerman's article, The Origin of Gandalf and Josef Madlener presented his research into this "lost treasure" and concluded, "...as for the original, nobody has the slightest idea as to its whereabouts... perhaps it is... catching dust in someone's attic, unhonoured and unrecognised for what it is". Carpenter received countless enquiries about the postcard, which itself is something of a rarity, and regretted not including it as an illustration in his biography.

For Tolkien fans, Madlener's picture attained near legendary status, but its whereabouts remained a mystery. Then, suddenly, there it was in a Sotheby's (20/12% buyer's premium) book sale of July 12 - and just a little more of its background was revealed.

Sotheby's vendor, now resident in America, had been entirely unaware of the picture's modern mythical status, but someone persuaded him that it was worth investigating and in due course Der Berggeist found its way into the salerooms. The owner told Sotheby's that he had met Madlener twice in the years 1946-47, and that on his second visit, whilst chatting over coffee and bread that Madlener - a keen amateur baker - had made himself, had told him how much he liked the Der Berggeist. Madlener promptly presented him with the picture and told him to give it a good home. And so he kept it for almost 60 years.

Philip Errington of Sotheby's book department alerted various Tolkien interest groups via the web, and they all got very excited, but on the day it was an American dealer who won the prize at £65,000.

Ian McKay