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A Northamptonshire dealer told ATG he briefly owned two of the four bronzes in 1989 after the Wellingborough Golf Club - recent recipients of a windfall of more than £2.5m - breached English Heritage rules and sold them at auction in Lincoln.

Every antiques dealer has a story to relate of 'the one that got away', and for Christopher Jones of Core One (London SW6) that tale concerns two of the four ecclesiastical bronzes by the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1552) acquired last month by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

As reported in ATG No 2179, February 21, the two sellers, the golf club and the Paris dealer Guy Ladrière, formed an unlikely alliance to resolve any issue of proper title surrounding a 'national treasure'.

Living in Northamptonshire, Mr Jones regularly drove past Harrowden Hall, clubhouse of the golf club, where four bronze figures were displayed from the tops of gateposts.

When thieves stole two of them in 1988 - M Ladrière acquired them six years later in good faith - the club invited Mr Jones to inspect the other pair that had been removed indoors for safe keeping. He made an offer but the club instead entered them for sale at the Lincoln auction house John H Walters and Sons on April 26, 1989.

'Chancy Purchase'

Advertised via a grainy photograph in ATG, some weeks later we reported the sale of "a pair of large 19th century bronze angels" at a surprise £10,200. Mr Jones - who considered them 'chancy' - took a half share in them with the Stamford, Lincolnshire, dealer Robin Cox. He still has the photographs he took of them at the time.

Several people who subsequently looked at them suggested they could be Renaissance period, but the opportunity for future research vanished after English Heritage questioned the golf club's right to sell them.

The bronzes formed part of the Grade I listing at Harrowden and were considered an important fixture. Faced with a title issue that could make them unsaleable, Mr Jones and Mr Cox were persuaded the sell the bronzes back to the club.

At the time, Mr Jones recalls, the club was less than delighted to take them back or allow the two dealers a meagre profit for their considerable inconvenience.

Twenty-five years later and the Benedetto angels - conceived as part of a magnificent funerary monument to Cardinal Wolsey that was never completed - are on display at the V&A in South Kensington as they await restoration.

Dr Paul Williamson, chief curator of sculpture at the museum, said: "It is an astonishing discovery. Nobody imagined these things had survived. And if the two angels hadn't been stolen, they would still be on the gateposts and nobody would know what they were. So, in a way, ultimately [the golf club] will benefit from the theft."

They will also benefit from the largesse of two local antiques dealers.