A ‘priceless’ 17th-century sculpture of Dr Peter Turner, an eminent botanist and physician, which will be returned to its rightful home after it was looted from a bombed church during the Blitz Photo: PA

It was only located when it was consigned for sale and is now due to take up its original position in the medieval church where diarist Samuel Pepys is buried.

The 1614 statue – worth an estimated £70,000 – was recovered after a curator at the Museum of London got wind of the impending Dreweatts auction in 2009 and tipped off church officials.

Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer who specialises in resolving art-related title disputes, took on the case pro-bono and the alabaster bust was withdrawn from the sale.

An investigation later revealed a chain of previous buyers including Belgian art trader Paul de Grande who bought the work from an ecclesiastical dealer in the Netherlands. The Dutch dealer had acquired the work from a man going by the name of Gray Dench. Marinello said that research showed this name was false.

To the surprise of experts, the bust had travelled to the Netherlands with documentation detailing its history up until the 1941 bombing.

Church officials were stunned to find the provenance stated “Presumably the bust of Dr Turner was salvaged from the ruins (of the Church) but its history since the Blitz is undocumented.” However, investigators believe the artwork was stolen rather than salvaged after the bombing.”I do not believe that de Grande or the Dutch dealer knew that this bust was stolen,” Marinello said. “However, both dealers knew that the bust originated from St. Olave’s. One simple phone call to St Olave’s would have brought the true history to light.”

The Dutch dealer declined to comment while Mr de Grande claimed he did not call St Olave’s because wartime photographs of its bombed state led him to believe it had been destroyed.

Mr Marinello said it would take some time to set the bust back in its original position but it is expected to be in place later this year.

“If you visit the church, you can still see the space where it once hung,” he added.

“It’s a very empty space and I think the church will really be made complete when it is put back in that particular spot.”

The Reverend Oliver Ross, rector of St Olave Hart Street, said its return was a “cause for great celebration”.

“We are deeply grateful for the diligent and generous efforts on our behalf, as well as to Dreweatts and the two dealers concerned for enabling such a happy end to Dr Turner’s long years of exile,” he added.

The missing work had formed part of a larger memorial erected by Dr Turner’s wife around 1614. His remains are buried underneath the church.