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The spotlight was first turned on the 11in (28cm) high carved stone bust of a nude, shown right, when Adam Partridge Auctioneers of Congleton advertised it as part of their March 25-26 sale. ATG included a preview of it in issue No 1933.

The vendor, a retired stonemason, told how it had been brought to him for repair more than 50 years ago, but had never been collected.

Estimated at £300, it sparked a great deal of interest as a possible piece by Gill.

However, Mr Partridge decided to withdraw the lot from sale after he was shown what appeared to be an identical sculpture illustrated in a book on Gill by the art historian and former Tate curator Judith Collins. The book described it as belonging to the Manchester Art Gallery and "lost by 1992".

The gallery later confirmed that a carving dating to 1913 and matching the description of the one being put up for sale had been donated to its collection in the 1920s and had been missing since 1970.

Mr Partridge says the vendor told him that, having been in possession of the sculpture for so long, he had been advised that he now had title to it and was resolved to sell.

However, any question mark over the piece's provenance and title would certainly affect its ability to attract a buyer at its true value.

Last week, Mr Partridge was able to inform ATG that the vendor had come to an agreement with Manchester Art Gallery for the sculpture to be returned in the near future.

By Ivan Macquisten