Versace's stolen art returned to its real owners – in Dorset

A painting of an 18th-century English major which once graced the walls of Gianni Versace's opulent Villa Fontanelle on the shores of Lake Como has been reunited with the British family from whom it was stolen more than 30 years ago.

The portrait of Major George Maule by German-born Johann Zoffany, one of George III's favourite artists, was withdrawn shortly before it was due to go on sale for £60,000 at Sotheby's in London last year. It had been recognised by one of the subject's descendants in a newspaper article about the impending sale of the late fashion designer's art and furniture.

But it was announced yesterday that the future ownership of Lot 72, as it became known in the art world, has now been settled following an amicable agreement between the family and Versace's trustees, who include his niece and heir to his fashion empire, Allegra Versace.

The portrait of Major Maule was taken from above the mantlepiece of the London home of Major-General John Sheffield in 1979. Versace did not know the oil painting was stolen when he added it to his collection some years later.

The family, from Dorset, contacted the Art Loss Register (ALR), which identifies stolen works on behalf of collectors and the industry, and provided photographic evidence proving the picture was a cherished heirloom. Rather than spend the coming years battling through the courts for ownership, the two parties settled the case, explained Christopher Marinello, executive director and general counsel at the ALR. Last week the work was returned to its original owners.

Mr Marinello said: "It was all settled amicably. 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 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. You often read about expensive legal cases involving artworks but this was not one of them."

The portrait was originally among more than 500 items from Villa Fontanelle sold last year at an auction which saw feverish bidding and netted £7m for the Versace estate – more than double the initial estimate with some objects fetching 10 times their anticipated price.

Versace, who was murdered outside his Miami Beach home in 1997 at the age of 50, once described his Italian home in Moltrasio, which he fitted out personally in its original 18th-century style, as "the house that really belongs to me, reflecting a mirror image of all that I am, for better or worse".

Zoffany was one of the most fashionable painters of the Georgian court and ranked alongside the British School of Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds. His informally posed "conversation pieces" were sought after in society circles and King George III was a particular fan, recommending him as a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts. Zoffany later made a fortune from his paintings in India.

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