The face that launched a thousand prints - Russian painter Vladimir Tretchikoff's instantly recognisable Chinese Girl - is up for sale.

The original painting is being auctioned in March and is expected to fetch as much as £500,000, a far cry from the cost of the cheap prints which hung on living room walls up and down the land.

Millions of reproductions of the picture, also known as the Green Lady because of the unusual blue-green skin tone of the subject, have been sold since it was painted in the 1950s and it has featured on t-shirts, mugs and posters.

chinesegirl 'The Green Lady' by Vladimir Tretchikoff

The picture, which has been described as the most famous painting in the world, was inspired by Monika Sing-Lee who modelled for Tretchikoff after he spotted her at work in her uncle's launderette in Cape Town, South Africa.

Writer Boris Gorelik, an expert on the Russian-born artist, said the painting was "familiar to millions of people throughout the world".

He said: "What's more, this is one of the most important pop culture icons in Britain and the Commonwealth in the 1950s to early 1960s. Today, even prints of the Green Lady in mint condition, which went for a couple of pounds in their day, change hands for hundreds of pounds.

"Take the Chinese Girl for example: millions of people - perhaps your parents or grandparents - bought a lithograph of this painting, hung it on their wall and admired it for years, if not decades. Maybe even you grew up looking at it. And today you can get the real thing - the original canvas. It's certainly fascinating."

The painting forms part of a sale of South African art at Bonhams auction house in central London on 20 March.

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