Versace trustees return stolen painting

Major George Maule by Johann Zoffany The portrait had previously hung above the family's mantelpiece

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A painting from murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace's art collection has been reunited with its rightful owners.

The portrait of Major George Maule, by German artist Johann Zoffany, was spotted in a newspaper picture last year by a descendant of the sitter.

The heirloom had vanished from the Dorset family's London home in 1979.

The Art Loss Register, which identifies stolen works, said Versace was unaware it had been stolen.

It said the designer bought the painting in the 1980s.

The portrait was due to be sold at Sotherby's along with other art and pieces of furniture from Versace's villa in Lake Como, Italy.

It was withdrawn before the sale, where it had been estimated to fetch between £40,000 and £60,000, amid confusion over its legal ownership.

Family 'overjoyed'

The picture was stolen from the home of Major General Sheffield, a direct descendant of Major Maule, who died in 1987.

When the family spotted it in the paper, they contacted The Art Loss Register (ALR), which identifies stolen works, and sent a photograph of the portrait hanging above their mantle-piece before it disappeared.

It was returned last week following an agreement with Versace's trustees.

"It was all settled amicably," said ALR director Christopher Marinello.

"The family are overjoyed. They came here to our offices last week to pick it up and it was very emotional to see this painting back in their possession.

"They will hang on to it for a long time to come, I'm sure.

"This is a family heirloom and a family heir, so it was very important for them to get it back.

"The Versaces respected that and were willing to sit down and discuss how we might be able to return it to them.

"There is no doubt that Gianni Versace had no knowledge that this painting was stolen when he purchased it."

The sale of Versace's possessions raised more than £7m, with the highest prices paid for a pair of Italian cherry wood bookcases from his bedroom, which sold for £481,250 and £601,250 respectively.

Versace was shot dead at his home in Miami in 1997 at the age of 50. The killer, Andrew Cunanan, killed himself several days later.

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