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The ruling – which confirmed that claims made to the court by Jeanne Marchig, a previous owner of the work, had been made far too late under the law – effectively ends any legal recourse over what was potentially a suit worth tens of millions of pounds.

A comparatively minor claim concerning the frame the work was consigned in remains outstanding.

As previous ATG reports detailed, the saga dates back to 1998, when Christie's sold the coloured chalk-on-vellum portrait of a young woman, catalogued as '19th century German', for $19,000 to New York dealer Kate Ganz. She went on to sell the work to Paris-based Canadian collector Peter Silverman for around $21,000 in 2007.

Since then a number of academics, led by Oxford University Professor Martin Kemp, have assigned it to Leonardo. It has been renamed La Bella Principessa and been valued at £100m.

Christie's themselves alerted Mrs Marchig, who had consigned the work to them in 1998, of the recent developments. In May 2010, she lodged claims for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of warranty, negligence and negligent misrepresentation against the auctioneers in the New York court.

She argued, among other points, that at the time of consignment Christie's had wilfully ignored her stated belief that the picture was by a 15th century Italian artist, going as far as to remove the frame because it did not fit in with their assessment of it as 19th century.

On January 31 of this year, US District Judge John G. Koetl ruled that the case could not be brought to court because the relevant statute of limitations had expired. Actions for breach of warranty and fiduciary duty against Christie's would have had to have been brought within three years of the 1998 sale, with a six-year limit for accusations of negligence.

The judge left open the possibility of an appeal if Mrs Marchig could show why the statute of limitations should be set aside. She duly argued that there was an ongoing fiduciary relationship between her and Christie's and that, as a result, the time limit had not been reached as claims for breach of fiduciary duty do not accrue until the fiduciary relationship comes to an end.

However, the Appeals court ruled that in a consignor/consignee transaction, the fiduciary relationship ends once the item in question is sold and that any separate fiduciary relationship has to be treated separately. Thereby, the earlier ruling on the statute of limitations was upheld.