An anonymous tip-off enabled Madrid's Prado museum to recover a painting missing for 28 years that surfaced for sale at an east Sussex auction gallery, Spain's flagship museum said yesterday.
Still Life of Fish, by the 18th-century Spanish artist Bartolome Montalvo, had been on loan to a school in the southern city of Cordoba, where it disappeared in 1974.
Nothing more was heard of it until a British antiques dealer in Marbella on the Costa del Sol offered the painting to Gorringes Auction Gallery in Lewes, east Sussex, last summer. He had bought it as part of a flat clearance from a Spanish woman in June.
"The dealer is among our regular suppliers and we catalogued the work and put it in our auction catalogue," Philip Taylor, senior partner of Gorringes, said yesterday. "But, to be honest, we didn't think it was a very inspiring painting and wouldn't have expected it to raise more than a few hundred pounds."
The oil painting on wood was not signed, and Gorringes described it in the auction catalogue as "Spanish School". But it had inventory numbers and marks identifying it as part of Spain's royal collection, on which the Prado was founded in 1819.
Jose Luis Diez, a curator at the Prado, was told the painting was up for auction in Britain, a museum spokeswoman said yesterday. Police were alerted and the work was immediately withdrawn.
"There's so much stolen art around these days, I'm delighted this was spotted in time, otherwise it would have disappeared for another few decades," Mr Taylor said.
"It's not so surprising that the painting has come to light after such a long time; it's had time to change hands and cover its tracks. It's more unusual for a painting to reappear after only a few years."
The woman who sold the painting to the Marbella dealer turned out to have worked as a caretaker at the Cordoba school.
"In 1974, because construction work was being done at the school, she took the picture and kept it at her home until the sale," Spanish police said. The authorities have not filed charges against the caretaker.
Once told the painting belonged to the Spanish state, the British antiques dealer surrendered any claim to the work, which was seized by British police at Spain's request. The painting has been handed over to Spanish police and will be returned to the Prado.
Montalvo is a relatively unknown artist who painted landscapes and still-lifes. His recovered work Bodegon de Pesca forms part of the Prado's vast dispersed holdings. More than 4,500 paintings and artworks owned by the museum are distributed to public institutions throughout Spain.
The so-called dispersed Prado contains artworks "not of the top category" among its huge and priceless collection of some 20,000 works. With some 10,000 pieces stored in vaults and only 1,500 on show in Madrid, dispersal enables more treasures to be publicly displayed.
Plans were in train to establish a permanent control commission to ensure the safety of the museum's dispersed holdings, the Prado's director, Miguel Zugaza, said.
The recovered painting, which was damaged and had been roughly patched in one corner, was of "modest artistic value", the Prado said. Its chief interest lay in the artist having been court painter to King Fernando VII.