Anthony Radcliffe, keeper of sculpture at the V&A from 1979 to 1989, agreedthe deal with a firm of art dealers and four private collectors without consulting or informing his superiors. There is no suggestion that he received any financial gain from it or acted unlawfully. That the V&A only recently discovered the deal suggests a lack of monitoring.
The loss of extra money is alarming for the V&A, a national museum, because it is in financial difficulties and needs more than pounds 200m for restoration and repair.
The deal was made before a Royal Academy exhibition in March 1986 of the work of Alfred Gilbert, who sculpted the 9ft-tall, aluminium Eros, erected in 1893.
John Lewis, a private collector, and the Fine Art Society commercial gallery paid about pounds 20,000 to have the original plaster moulds of Eros restored. Three other private collectors each gave about pounds 10,000 towards the Gilbert exhibition. In return, Mr Radcliffe, in a letter which says he is writing on behalf of the V&A, agreed to allow each of the collectors to take one cast from the Eros moulds and the Fine Art Society to take six. No other casts could be taken for 20 years.
The society has so far sold four statues, at pounds 160,000 each. One is in an office block in London, one in the United States, another in Australia and one is destined for Japan. The society has not revealed the cost of making each statue, but estimates vary from pounds 30,000 to pounds 60,000.
Sir Roy Strong, director of the V&A in 1986, who resigned in 1987, said: 'I'm horrified - this is the first I have heard of the matter. There would have been a flaming row if I had heard about it while I was director.'
The deal has also confounded the National Museum and Galleries on Merseyside, which owns a second Eros, sculpted by Gilbert and erected in Sefton Park, Liverpool, in the 1930s. Pollution and vandalism have reduced it to a corroded wreck, so John Larson, head of sculpture conservation at the museum, asked the V&A about making a new cast. He was told he would have to buy one from the Fine Art Society.
'The society said we could have a pounds 20,000 discount,' Mr Larson said, 'but the city council cannot afford pounds 140,000. We are talking about a national monument. I don't see how a private organisation can buy rights into something owned by the nation.' Liverpool's Eros will now probably be restored and kept in a museum. A replica will be made from it.
Paul Williamson, curator of sculpture at the V&A, confirmed that the museum only became aware of the 1986 contract last year. An internal inquiry was held, but no action was considered necessary. He said: 'We would certainly do things differently today. It was perhaps the action of someone who was not very experienced, but thought they were doing the best for the museum.' Privately, V&A management describe the affair as a 'total screw-up'.
Peyton Skipwith, deputy managing director of the Fine Art Society, said: 'Hindsight is a great thing. At the time it was a gamble; it was certainly not a licence to print money.' John Lewis said: 'At the time there was no one willing to put money into restoration. Museums were for learning - it's only recently they've become commercial animals.' Mr Radcliffe, now a researcher in the V&A department of sculpture, was not available for comment.
The high price of Eros replicas could also influence the fate of the monument in London currently being repaired after two revellers damaged the legs. The cost of restoration is estimated at pounds 30,000. This is the seventh time the statue has needed such work. Many restorers now believe it should be put in a museum but Westminister City Council is determined to put the original back on its perch.
Gilbert designed the statue as a memorial to the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the Victorian philanthropist. However, it is not of Eros, the god of sexual love, but of his younger brother, Anteros, who represents selfless love.