The heirs to a stolen Joshua Reynolds oil painting are seeking its return after it turned up 35 years later in a Tokyo museum.

Painted in about 1780, the portrait of Miss Mathew, later Lady Elizabeth Mathew, with her dog before a landscape, was stolen from the Sussex home of Sir Henry and Lady Price in 1984. Sir Henry was the founder of menswear stores, Fifty Shilling Tailors, and became a prominent philanthropist. His grandson, Tim Radley-Smith, turned to Venice-based Art Recovery International to search for the missing work.

The painting is believed to have been auctioned by Sotheby’s in London four years after it went missing. It was purchased by an art dealer who then sold it to Tokyo’s Fuji Art Museum in 1990. When Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, contacted the Museum in 2015 to report the painting as stolen and inform them of the heirs’ claim, the Museum is said to have denied that their Reynolds’ was the same work as the missing painting.

The Museum was served with provenance information as proof of the heirs’ claim including a picture of it hanging in the family home, but museum officials refused to accept it. According to Marinello, the Museum claimed they acquired the work in good faith under Japanese law. Museum officials are also demanding payment of a “reasonable sum” before entering into discussions with the heirs about the stolen work. Their demand contravenes International Council of Museums (ICOM) guidelines.

Marinello contends that while the Museum may have purchased the work in good faith under Japanese law, they cannot be called good faith purchasers and they failed to carry out independent due diligence prior to making the acquisition. “The museum should have and could have done more research in 1990 as required by Icom guidelines”, Marinello argued. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Sotheby’s told The Art Newspaper that the auction house had not been contacted by Art Recovery International in relation to the sale of the work and “would welcome any further information the relevant parties can provide”.

Radley-Smith has stated that the claim to the stolen work is “not just financial”. “It was my grandmother’s favourite picture… We had it for a long time and we have spent a long time trying to get it back”, he explained.