A sacred Aboriginal stone not supposed to be seen by women has been withdrawn from a British auction following a public outcry in Australia.
An unidentified woman who was given the unremarkable-looking artefact as a present while in Australia in the 1960s had it listed for sale for up to £6,000. But outrage was provoked 10,000 miles away among art curators because it is considered of such spiritual power and importance that it should never be sold.
Tradition dictates that the stone, known as tjuringa, must only be handled by Aboriginal male elders. And it is also said that Aboriginal women who see it will be struck down and die.
It is used in the most profound ceremonies within Aboriginal culture and then secreted away, with only senior elders knowing how to retrieve it. Such has been the intensity of feeling Down Under about its proposed sale at Canterbury Auction Galleries in Kent that Australia's High Commission in London intervened.
The high commissioner's personal assistant telephoned Anthony Pratt, the managing director of the galleries, to impress upon him the stone's significance.
Now it has been withdrawn from the auction, and efforts are taking place to repatriate it to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Mr Pratt said: "It's an unusual and unremarkable piece but we realise that it is of great significance to the Aboriginal people. It came in on a regular valuation day in Sandwich. It wasn't quite what you'd expect to turn up in Sandwich. It's pretty unremarkable. It's not a work of art by any stretch.
"It's a flat, oval stone with a bit of decoration on the front. When I spoke to the high commissioner's personal assistant, they said that the vendor has good title to sell it. But they said it is revered and told me about its importance. We didn't want to offend anybody just for a sale so the decision was taken to withdraw it from the auction."
The seller, from the Sandwich area of Kent, was given the stone as a gift in 1961 by Archer Russell, an Australian naturalist and writer. It is understood to date from some time before the 19th century and belong to the Arrernte people of central Australia.
Bernice Murphy, the national director of Museums Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "It's more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Marbles to Greece because this kind of object has a continuing religious association."