FOR years it was tucked away in a quiet corner of an award-winning Hampshire attraction.

A 7ft bronze sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth stood in a private part of Exbury Gardens, unseen by the thousands of visitors who have flocked to the New Forest site since it opened to the public in the 1950s.

Now the 52-year-old work of art has turned into a record-breaker.

Curved Form (Bryher 11) has been sold by Christie’s for £2.4m - about £1m more than the previous highest sum paid for a Hepworth sculpture.

Named after the smallest of the five inhabited Isles of Scilly, it was bought by Leopold de Rothschild in 1967 and was put up for auction following his death last year.

It was expected to fetch between £1m and £1.5m but eventually went for more than twice the lower estimate.

A mystery buyer paid a total of £2,413,875, which works out at nearly £350,000 per foot.

An Exbury Gardens spokeswoman said Mr de Rothschild’s representatives were “delighted” with the outcome.

She added: “The piece was held in his private collection and bequeathed to a charitable trust, established during his lifetime, with the purpose of continuing his philanthropic and charitable activities.”

Mr de Rothschild, who lived in Kensington, south-west London, died in April last year, aged 84. He was brought up on the Exbury Estate, which his father Lionel bought in 1918.

Affectionately known as ‘Mr Leo’, he was a leading light in the creation of Exbury’s narrow-gauge steam railway and often drove one of the engines himself.

Dame Barbara Hepworth

DAME Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1903.

Her first marriage was to the sculptor John Skeaping. She later married the painter Ben Nicholson and the couple had triplets, one of whom also became an artist.

Her eldest son Paul was killed in a plane crash in 1953 while serving with the RAF in Thailand.

She was made a dame in 1965, ten years before she died, aged 72, in a fire at her studio in St Ives, Cornwall.

In 2011 her 1969 sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) was stolen from its plinth in Dulwich Park, London, by scrap metal thieves.