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Even after the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil was declared illegal in 1850, slaves continued to be smuggled across the ocean. A year later, HMS Sharpshooter, one of the first iron steamers to be used by the Royal Navy, captured what has been termed 'the last of the Brazilian slavers' - the Piratenim. When the slave ship was spotted, its captain tried to brazen it out and claimed all passengers were legitimate, but more than 100 slaves were eventually discovered.

The lot included a privately-printed book by Captain John C. Bailey, who was in command of HMS Sharpshooter, and a typed draft of Averil MacKenzie-Grieve's article The Last of the Brazilian Slavers, 1851, with an alternate title A Brazilian Slaver's Figurehead - The Story of the Capture by HMS Sharpshooter.

MacKenzie-Grieve's article appeared in a publication called Mariner's Mirror in 1944, and described how the figurehead was missing from the Piratenim when captured: "…the missing figurehead was found stowed away in the hold. It was a peculiar one, and for that reason had been unshipped, lest it might lead to the vessel's identification".

Gaucho Figure

The carved wood and painted 2ft (63cm) high figurehead - a three-quarter length figure of a South American gaucho - was bought by the vendor's grandfather, Vivian Collett, from an antique dealer in Worcester in the 1940s, but recently had been sitting in a garage with a blanket over the top.

John Black of Sworders, in Stansted Mountfitchet, said: "The paintwork was really quite good, whether or not it had been touched up at some point. The great thing was that the MacKenzie-Grieve document included a black and white photo and it showed no more damage now than 70 years ago. It's fantastic that it remains as good as it was then."

Mr Black visited the National Maritime Museum three months before the sale and they were very interested and booked a phone line for the sale, but on the day itself Sworders were told the museum's funding had fallen through, and this fascinating slice of Royal Navy history sailed off to the US, bought by a private collector on the phone at the sale on December 9.

This had echoes of the sale of a 1:48 scale Admiralty Dockyard or Navy Board model for an unidentified two-masted eight-gun vessel c.1720 sold at Charles Miller on October 29. Mr Miller fired off a broadside at the maritime museum for not trying to buy that very rare item - which also headed off across the Atlantic to a collector.

The buyer's premium at Sworders was 20%.