Dr Elena Greer with tortoises
National Trust property curator Dr Elena Greer admires two of the four recovered bronze tortoises by Carlo Marochetti. Photo credit: James Dobson.

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They were part of a set of 16 commissioned by collector and Egyptologist William John Bankes (1786-1855) from Italian-born sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti (1805-67). The tortoises were stolen in 1992, after which they were replaced with replicas.

Earlier this year one of the four missing bronzes was consigned to Dreweatts and appeared in its March 30 Fine Furniture, Sculpture, Carpets, Ceramics and Works of Art sale catalogue. It was withdrawn from sale after it was flagged as identical to those stolen from Kingston Lacy. The other three were subsequently tracked down by the National Trust.

Four bronze tortoises

The four recovered tortoises at the National Trust. Photo credit: James Dobson.

James Rothwell, national curator for decorative arts at the trust, said: “Hope had faded over the years of recovering the stolen bronzes, and so I was astonished this spring to be contacted by Tim Knox, director of the Royal Collection and a former head curator at the National Trust, to say that he had seen a cast bronze tortoise, made by Marochetti, listed for auction.

“The tortoise’s owner had purchased it online and subsequently put it up for sale. Once he and the auction house learned that it was in fact a cast of Bankes’ beloved pet they withdrew it from the sale and returned it to the team at Kingston Lacy.”

Rothwell added: “The trail then led to an antiques dealer who had acquired the set of four from a scrap metal dealer, completely unaware of their history. He too was delighted to reunite the remaining three wi th the ir long- los t companions.”

Dr Elena Greer with four bronze tortoises

National Trust property curator Dr Elena Greer with the four recovered bronze tortoises by Carlo Marochetti. Photo credit: James Dobson.

The four are now back on display at the house owned by the National Trust since 1982.

Cast from life

Bankes commissioned the set of 16 as supports for four Verona marble urns displayed in the grounds of the family home.

Determined for the sculptures to be as accurate as possible, he suppl ied Marochetti (who cast Landseer’s lions in Trafalgar Square) with one of his pet tortoises from which to make a mould. After Bankes collected the creature in Paris he wrote to his sister Anne: “Think of my carrying a live tortoise in a bag all the way from the Palais Royal!”

Dreweatts uses The Art Loss Register to check lots against the stolen database ahead of auctions. However, in this case the tortoise was spotted in its catalogue before ALR had checked the sale.

ALR said Dreweatts informed it of the National Trust being in touch and ran its “check and had a match on our database with the theft in 1992”.

A spokesperson for Dreweatts said: “All [our] catalogues are run through the ALR prior to the auctions and naturally we are delighted that it has been identified and found its way back to its rightful owner after 29 years.”