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The resulting tale involved an 18th century literary Castaway experiment and more than one shipwreck.

The carving, 4ft 5in (1.35m) tall and retaining traces of paint, was in the form of a young woman clutching a medallion in her right hand. After consulting various local and national museums, plus the curator of an exhibition of figureheads staged last year in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Prunier managed to identify the figure as Virginie, from Bernardin de St-Pierre’s immensely popular late 18th century idyll Paul et Virginie, set in Mauritius (then a French colony known as Ile de France).

Paul and Virginie are brought up from infancy to lead sober and exemplary lives far from the influence of civilisation. Virginie is called back to Paris to be educated and claim her fortune, but on her return the ship is wrecked in sight of land. Virginie perishes because she refuses to undress to swim ashore.

Having discovered the identity of the carving, Prunier went on to identify the ship she originally adorned: a brig built in Italy in 1851 and fitted out in Marseille in 1853, which sailed from Hamburg with a cargo of gin in December 1875 and ran aground near Audouville-la-Hubert, off the Normandy coast, in April 1876.

The brig’s contents, including the figurehead, were promptly auctioned in situ – on what was later to become Utah Beach.

Despite the watery fate of the heroine, Prunier learnt that no fewer than eleven ships were registered in France in 1853 under the name Virginie, an indication of the extraordinary popularity of a tale which has now all but faded from the public consciousness. Nevertheless Prunier managed to persuade Mauritius TV to film this latest episode in the eventful life of his own particular Virginie for the island’s evening news.

All this historical background helped the price to the Fr195,000 (£18,900) it took for the trade to secure the lot against competition from 8 telephone bidders and a French museum.