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The 10in x 6in (25 x 15cm) sketch, in finely hatched brown ink on paper with white lead corrections, was discovered only last year during a routine insurance valuation by Julien Stock of Sotheby’s at Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

Entitled Study of a Mourning Woman, the drawing depicts a heavily-cloaked figure. It was bought by Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle, at a sale in London in 1747, and was ignominiously pasted into a scrapbook with several other Old Master drawings. Now securely identified as by Michelangelo, the sketch is still the subject of some debate about when he actually drew it.

The drawing, along with other treasures, had a narrow escape during World War Two when the castle was used as a billet for army officers and part of the building was gutted by fire. It is likely the sale will help fund the ongoing restoration work at the castle.

The National Galleries of Scotland is determined to buy the picture, making it the only ‘British’ Michelangelo in a public collection north of Cambridge, and its fund-raising appeal has been given a £500,000 kick-start by the National Art Collections Fund.

“This is our largest ever gift towards a drawing,” said Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the Art Fund, “and one of the largest in our 98-year history. It reflects our desire to see this noble and exquisite drawing saved for Scotland.”

In the past 15 years, the Art Fund has helped the NGS acquire drawings by Raphael and Leonardo. “It would be
wonderful to be instrumental
in completing this trinity of
great Renaissance masters,” Sir Nicholas added.

• The National Art Collections Fund is an independent charity and can be contacted on +44 (0)20 7225 4800 or www.art-fund.org.