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The Pre-Columbian figure vanished from the museum in Cartagena, Colombia, 80 years ago and was returned during a small ceremony at the Colombian Embassy in London earlier this month. A member of staff at Hampstead Auctions flagged the work to the Art Recovery Group after researching its provenance for an upcoming sale.

“According to the consignor, in 1999 he was visiting his then girlfriend’s family in Colombia and was given the sculpture as a departing gift,” says Christopher Marinello of the Art Recovery Group.

The work is a Quimbaya sculpture. These ceremonial slab figures were placed in tombs and may have been guardians for the deceased. This figure, like others of its type, is highly stylised and geometric in form and bears traces of the paint that once decorated it.

He added that though the consignor, who asked to remain anonymous, was searched thoroughly for drugs “including the shoulder pads of his jacket,” but that the figure went through security “without a second glance.”

The chequered past ownership of the piece started with its mysterious disappearance from the National Museum of Colombia, where there is no record of the circumstances under which it disappeared.

It has been sent to the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History.