Almost half a century after it was stolen, a Roman statue of the god Bacchus has been handed back to the French museum where it was displayed.
The 1st Century bronze of Bacchus as a child was taken by thieves in December 1973, along with 5,000 Roman coins.
Art detective Arthur Brand traced the statue to the museum when a client was offered it by an Austrian collector.
“Fifty years after a theft it’s unheard of that something comes back – normally it’s been destroyed,” he told the BBC.
The 40cm-high (15.7in) statue was dug up on the site of the Gallo-Roman village of Vertillum in eastern France in 1894 and years later featured in a Paris exhibition of France’s finest art pieces.
When Mr Brand handed the statue back to the Musée du Pays Châtillonnais this week, director Catherine Monnet said she realised how much more beautiful it was than the copy that had been put on display.
The Dutch art sleuth, who has built a reputation for tracking down stolen masterpieces around the world, said the museum was “flabbergasted” when he told them he had traced their missing statue.
He described how he had been contacted by a client who wanted to know more about the statue after he was offered it by an Austrian collector, who had bought it legally and in good faith.
There were no databases in 1973 but Mr Brand eventually found a reference to it in an archaeology magazine dating back to 1927, and French police then found their report from the time of the theft.
“I contacted the collector. He didn’t want to have a stolen piece in his collection so he wanted to give it back, but French law dictates that a small amount has to be paid for safekeeping.”
That small amount in relation to the statue’s value is still a considerable sum of money.
While half was paid by the local authority in Chatillon, the rest was provided by an auction house specialising in ancient art in the English port town of Harwich. “The piece belongs in the museum so it’s only right people can get together and make that happen,” said Aaron Hammond of Timeline Auctions.
According to Mr Brand, the museum director cried tears of joy when she saw the statue: “I thought she was going to drop it she was so nervous.”