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The museum, based in St John’s Wood, bought Apocalypse en lilas, Capriccio, a previously unknown 1945 work, for 30,000 euros (£26,000) at Tajan’s October 26 sale of Impressionist and Modern Art.

The 20 x 14in (51 x 36cm) signed gouache on paper was consigned by a private collector from the South of France and is one of a series of nine works produced between 1938 and 1945 by Chagall using the crucifixion to represent the persecution of Jews by the Nazis.

The work was spotted in the Tajan catalogue by the museum’s co-chairman David Glasser, who told ATG: “This is a triumph for scholarship and hard work and not luck.”

Although it is fully catalogued, Mr Glasser said that it was not promoted as an important work by the auction house and was estimated cautiously at 25,000-40,000 euros.

Mr Glasser told ATG that he had been prepared to pay ten times the final price. The work was bought with the aid of donations from The Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Lionel Pissarro of GPS Partners, Miriam and Richard Borchard, Morven and Michael Heller and other donors.

Mr Glasser went on to say that, had the work been sold in New York or London, competition would have probably been stronger and the price would have been out of the museum’s budget. He attributed the lack of trade interest to the fact that the macabre subject matter made it a difficult commercial piece.

The museum only announced the purchase at the beginning of January when in possession of the work, because it did not want to alert the French authorities to its full significance, possibly prompting them to refuse it an export licence.

The picture is insured for £400,000, but may be worth over £1m.

The painting was unveiled at the Osborne Samuel Gallery on January 8, at 23a Bruton Street, Mayfair, where it will be on show until Wednesday, January 31. It is the centrepiece of an exhibition of 40 works from the museum’s collection, launching their campaign to find and fund a new central London premises.

By Anna Brady