Secret agent used to buy Joseph Wright of Derby paintings in New York

Cromford Mill Image copyright Derby Museums Trust
Image caption Joseph Wright's painting of Sir Richard Arkwright's mill at Cromford from 1795 or 1796 is now back in Derby

A secret agent was used in New York to buy two paintings by English artist Joseph Wright of Derby and return them to the city of his birth.

Derby Museum Trust surprised everyone when it unveiled the paintings of Sir Richard Arkwright's mills and Willersley Castle on Monday night.

The trust had only two weeks to raise the money needed for both paintings which fetched £233,107.

It is thought the paintings could be among his last works.

Image copyright Derby Museums Trust
Image caption The two pictures - including Sir Richard Arkwright's mansion Willersley Castle - were painted in 1795 or 1796

The museum did not tell anyone it was interested in the auction at Christie's in New York and employed a secret agent who was under instruction to only bid if somebody else did.

Meanwhile, gallery staff back in Derby nervously watched the sale online.

Jonathan Wallis from Derby Museum said: "We were sat there with a beer not sure whether to open it and celebrate or open it and commiserate.

"It was quite nail biting. We were watching and the auctioneer said 'is that the final bid? It's with you madam on the telephone' and we knew our guy was in the room.

"It went right down to the wire. He just chipped in at the end and the auctioneer said 'new bidder in the room. Sold to you sir'."

Image copyright PA

Joseph Wright 1734-1797

Known as Joseph Wright of Derby, he was the first major English painter to be based outside London and sometimes referred to as an English Caravaggio

He was the first artist to depict industry and scientific experiments of the age

Mr Wallis said if it was known the museum was interested in the pictures, art dealers would have tried to buy the paintings and sell them on to the gallery with an added premium.

After consulting with experts in London, the gallery hatched its plot and secured them for less than the guide price.

"This is great for us to do this for the people of Derbyshire and actually bring back a piece of their heritage," Mr Wallis said.

It is thought the paintings were commissioned by Sir Richard Arkwright - a pioneer of the industrial revolution - and are the only examples of Derbyshire landscapes by Wright in the Derby Museum's collection.

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