Three potential buyers fought hard last night at Sotheby’s in London in a bid for Edgar Degas’ bronze sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little dancer, aged 14).

This iconic sculpture of the Impressionist period fetched £13.3 million, setting a new record for a sculpture by the French artist. The sculpture had belonged to Sir John Madejski who bought it for £5 million in 2004 and now owned by an Asian buyer, it continues its history of remaining in private hands.

Originally the sculpture of the young dancer Marie van Goethen, a student of the Paris Opera Ballet, was made from wax in c.1879 and exhibited at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881. It caused a great stir amongst the critics of the time, proclaimed as both ugly and revolutionary due to Degas’ realistic representation of a working class ballerina. Dressed in a gauze tutu, fabric slippers, silk bodice and a wig of real hair, tied up in ribbon, Degas’ contemporaries were shocked by the unprecedented naturalism of this statuette.

The vulnerable pose displayed by the young girl conveys both the physical and psychological stress endured by these dancers, for the delectation of male viewers. Degas’ statue performed this purpose, yet in an uncomfortable and confrontational way. After his death in 1917 the wax original was found in Degas’ studio and thirty or so bronze casts were made in the early 1920s.

Only a handful of casts have remained privately owned with others in major international museum collections including the Tate Gallery and Musee d’Orsay. This innovative work of Degas’ has caused yet another sensation with its successful sale at Sotheby’s yesterday.