FOUR bronze tortoises stolen from a historic Dorset mansion nearly 30 years ago have finally returned home.

The bronzes, made by the sculptor Carlo Marochetti – who would go on to cast the lions guarding Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square – were stolen from Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne, in July 1992.

They were returned to the National Trust property, the former home of 19th century collector and Egyptologist William John Bankes, after one of them was spotted listed for auction earlier this year

James Rothwell, national curator for decorative arts at the National Trust, said: "Hope had faded over the years of recovering the stolen bronzes, and so I was astonished this spring to be contacted by Tim Knox, director of the Royal Collection and a former head curator at the National Trust, to say that he had seen a cast bronze tortoise, made by Marochetti, listed for auction.

"Could this be one of those stolen all those years ago?

"Close inspection of the tortoise revealed it was identical to those still at Kingston Lacy."

"The tortoise’s owner had purchased it online and subsequently put it up for sale. Once he and the auction house learned that it was in fact a cast of Bankes’ beloved pet, they withdrew it from the sale and returned it to the team at Kingston Lacy.”

Subsequent investigations led to an antiques dealer who had acquired the set of four from a scrap metal dealer, completely unaware of their history.

He too, said the National Trust, was delighted to reunite the remaining three with their long-lost companion.

William Bankes (1786-1855) had a particular fondness for tortoises, keeping several as pets.

In 1853, while in Paris, he commissioned Italian-born Marochetti to produce a set of sixteen bronze tortoises to support four Verona marble urns for the grounds of the family home in Dorset.

Determined for the sculptures to be as accurate as possible, Bankes even supplied Marochetti with one of his pet tortoises as a model.

After the four were stolen in 1992, staff quickly removed the remaining bronze tortoises for safe keeping – replacing them with replicas which have remained in place ever since.

With the recovery of the four, the originals will now go on display for visitors.

Dr Elena Greer, property curator at Kingston Lacy, said: "We know that William John Bankes loved tortoises, not only because he kept them as pets and from the commission of the bronzes for the urns, but from other clues around the house, for example, he added tortoises to the bases of the two Italian giltwood candelabra in the saloon.

“The idea of the tortoise or turtle holding up the earth on its back is referenced in a number of mythologies and appears in John Locke’s ‘An Essay concerning human understanding’ of which we have copies that belonged to William John’s father. Perhaps his interest in the creature stemmed from having read this?

“The Bankes family also appear to have acknowledged William John’s interest in the tortoise after his death. Henrietta Bankes, the wife of his great-nephew, bought a wooden footstool for the house carved in the image of a tortoise with its carapace in red upholstery.

“It is clearly a creature that brought much pleasure to the family and so it is wonderful that we can welcome four of our tortoise residents back home after such a long time and can display them for our visitors to enjoy.”