As the world-famous collection of Sussex taxidermist Walter Potter was broken up and sold off for more than £500,000, it emerged it could have been saved after all.

Controversial British artist Damien Hirst claims he made a last-minute bid to stop the auction of Potter's collection of stuffed animals, only to find he was too late.

The man famous for sawing a cow in half then displaying it in an art gallery, has such a soft spot for Potter's work he was willing to pay £1 million to get it taken off the market.

Yesterday, the Sussex enthusiasts who spent recent months trying to raise the money to return the collection intact to the village where it began 160 years ago, expressed dismay such a chance had been lost.

The last of about 10,000 items, including 6,000 stuffed animals, were auctioned off in Cornwall yesterday, where Potter's collection had been displayed since 1985. In total, the lots raised £529,800.

Among those attending were photographer David Bailey, artist Peter Blake and comedian Harry Hill.

Yesterday's sale included Potter's tableau of a kittens' tea party, which sold to a telephone bidder for £18,800.

The most expensive item over the two days was Potter's first creation, The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, which took seven years to complete and sold for £23,500.

Buyer Robert Chinnery, a dealer from The Victorian Taxidermy Company Ltd, said: "I thought it was quite cheap. I had considerably more money for that and I am very happy with it. To get something like a Walter Potter up for sale is very rare and inevitably a lot of it will go to America. This was the one choice piece and the one I wanted."

Potter started his collection when still a teenager in Bramber, near Steyning, in the 1850s.

The exhibits later moved to a specially-built village museum, becoming a major Sussex tourist attraction, then moving to Brighton and Arundel, before being bought by John Watts of the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall.

The Watts family made thousands of additions to the collection. Among the items auctioned off this week were the world's largest shoe, Queen Victoria's bath and a stuffed polar bear and giraffe.

A grizzly bear, which appeared in the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, sold for £7,638.

A spokeswoman for Damien Hirst said the artist put in a £1 million offer to buy the entire collection but was turned down because he had missed the August deadline for single offers.

In a letter published in a national newspaper on Tuesday, Hirst wrote: "I've been told someone tried to contact me to see if I would be interested in buying it.

"Sadly, as far as I am concerned, no one has approached me - because, of course, if they had, the answer would have been yes. It would be very sad if the collection disperses."

A spokeswoman for Bonhams said there was no record of a £1 million anonymous offer and said Hirst did not appear to be among the bidders.

Kevin Moore, chief executive of the Jamaica Inn, said: "It is really sad to break it up. We did not get one single offer on the whole thing."

Several Sussex representatives attended the auction in a bid to buy a few examples of Potter's work in the hope the items will one day form the basis of a new museum.

Spokesman Tim Concannon said: "We're hoping those who have bought his works will be willing to lend them out to us so they can once again go on show in Sussex. So, paradoxically, Potter's collection could be saved by being destroyed.

"If it is true Damien Hirst made this offer it is a great shame the exhibits were not withdrawn from sale. We will be getting in touch with Mr Hirst to see if he is really serious about saving the collection."