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Its American owner, who bought it for ,000 in 1954, only learned of its fame by chance because it was never distributed With her copper green face and unfinished background, The Chinese Girl was never an obvious masterpiece.

But cheap copies of this obscure portrait by a Russian artist were once so popular that it became one of the best-selling prints of all time.

She recently said she was paid the equivalent of £6 for her work. In a bizarre twist, just before Tretchikoff left for America in 1953, someone broke into his storeroom and slashed a dozen of his works.

In his autobiography, Tretchikoff claimed that The Chinese Girl had been among them, and that he had painted it again on arrival in America.

But research conducted by Boris Gorelik for a new biography of Tretchikoff, to be published here this summer, suggests the American work was in fact the original."I looked through reports of the slashing of the paintings in Durban newspapers from the time, and they give a complete list of the paintings that were slashed.

The Chinese Girl wasn't among them." Why Tretchikoff would later claim it was is unknown.

In 1954, she paid ,000; on Wednesday, Bonhams expects it to fetch up to half a million pounds.

In the 1970s, she gave it to her daughter, who took it with her wherever she lived.

Now, the original painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff, painted in 1951, is to be sold at auction in London.