Just hours before Sotheby’s sold the contents of Gianni Versace’s Lake Como villa on March 18, they withdrew an 18th century portrait by Johann Zoffany after its subject’s family claimed that it had been stolen from their home in London 30 years ago.

The portrait of Major George Maule by Johann Zoffany that was withdrawn from sale.

The portrait of Major George Maule - acting chief engineer at Madras - is believed to be one of four paintings completed by German-born artist when visiting India in 1783. Sotheby's described it in the Versace sale catalogue as "previously untraced and uncatalogued" and suggested an estimate of £40,000-60,000.

The question over the picture's title - that the late fashion designer is understood to have bought from a dealer in 1994 or 1995 - was raised by a direct descendent of the sitter who saw an illustration of the painting in the March 12 edition of the Evening Standard.

The family contacted the Art Loss Register and were able to support their claim with a photograph showing the portrait hanging above the mantelpiece before a burglary in 1979. The picture did not appear on the database of stolen art: for thefts of this era it relies primarily on the records of police and insurance companies that are not comprehensive.

The Art Loss Register is now assisting the family to unravel the picture's provenance to establish its rightful ownership.

The portrait was one of 550 lots from Le Fontanelle at Moltrasio on Lake Como sold for a premium-inclusive £7.4m, double the pre-sale high estimate.

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