Portrait of Major George Maule by Johann Zoffany Photo: CLARA MOLDEN Gianni Versace Photo: REX
A painting which formed part of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace’s art collection has been reunited with its rightful owners after being identified as stolen.

The portrait of Major George Maule by 18th century German neoclassical artist Johann Zoffany was due to go up for sale along with other art and pieces of furniture from Versace’s Lake Como villa.

But Lot 72 was withdrawn before the auction at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street, central London, in March last year amid confusion over its legal ownership.

Questions arose about the painting – which was estimated to fetch between £40,000 and £60,000 – after a descendant of the sitter saw an illustration of it in the London Evening Standard newspaper.

The family made a formal claim to the painting and included a photograph of the portrait hanging above the mantle-piece before it vanished some 30 years ago.

It is understood that Versace was unaware that it had been stolen when he bought it some years afterwards.

Today it was disclosed that the treasured heirloom was reunited last week with the family, who live in Sussex, following agreement between Versace’s trustees.

Christopher Marinello, a lawyer acting on behalf of the family, said today that they were delighted to have the painting returned.

Mr Marinello, who helped negotiate the case with the two parties, said: “It was all settled amicably. The family are overjoyed.

“They came to London 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.

“You often read about expensive legal cases involving artworks but this was not one of them.”

No-one from the family was available for immediate comment today.

The sale of Versace’s possessions raised more than £7 million, smashing the pre-sale estimate of £2.8 million after more than 500 people registered to bid.

The highest prices were for a pair of Italian cherry wood bookcases from Versace’s bedroom which sold for £481,250 and £601,250 respectively.

Versace, who was shot dead in Miami in 1997 aged 50, said of the villa on the shores of Lake Como: “The house in Moltrasio is a Proust house, whereas the ones in Milano and Miami are more Batman…

“It is the house that really belongs to me, reflecting a mirror image of all that I am, for better or worse.”