13/12/2011 06:31 GMT | Updated 13/12/2011 11:29 GMT

Forgotten Leda And The Swan Statue Sells For £12.2 Million

The Marquess of Zetland and his family aren’t exactly the Trotters, but discovering a Roman Leda and the Swan sculpture they’d had lying around for years was actually worth £12.2 million still came as a shock worthy of an Only Fools & Horses special.

The peer had described the 4ft 5in statue as "part of the furniture" at their home in Aske Hall in North Yorkshire and had no idea how much it was worth until a visiting antiquities specialist, Florent Heintz, identified it as a piece from the 2nd century.

A bit of digging revealed that it had been bought in Rome in the late 1700s by the 1st Earl of Zetland. Up until around 40 years ago, it had even been left outside as a garden ornament. You plonkers!

The sculpture was duly sold last week at Sotheby’s in New York where four bidders battled it out until an anonymous phone buyer offered ten times its £1.2m estimate value.

Leda and the Swan is an image from Greek mythology that continued to inspire artists and poets throughout the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. It comes from the story in which Zeus appears before Leda, the mother of Helen of Troy, in the form of a swan and seduces her.

It also inspired this rather harrowing sonnet by W. B Yeats:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Like this? Check out our top ten art stories from 2011.