Sotheby's withdraws star lot from Versace auction

People view a cast of Canova's wrestlers at a display of the fashion designer Gianni Versace's property collection at Sotheby's in central London, March 12, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) - Sotheby’s has withdrawn a painting from Wednesday’s auction of the contents of late Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace’s Lake Como villa amid suspicion it may have been stolen.

A direct descendent of the person depicted in the portrait contacted the Art Loss Register, which tracks lost and stolen art and antiquities, after seeing a photograph of the “vanished” work in London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

The painting, a recently discovered portrait by 18th century German artist Johann Zoffany called “Portrait of Major George Maule,” was one of the highlights of the auction, which is expected to fetch 2-3 million pounds ($2.8-4.2 million).

It is the only known portrait from a group of four paintings executed by the artist during a brief stay in Madras in 1783 and had been expected to sell for 40-60,000 pounds.

“The Art Loss Register confirms that Lot 72 ... has been withdrawn with the full agreement of the Sotheby’s consignor,” the Art Loss Register said in a statement.

“The family contacted the Art Loss Register and sent a photograph of the portrait hanging above the mantelpiece before it vanished.

“The Art Loss Register is assisting the family to unravel the picture’s provenance to establish its rightful ownership.”

Sotheby’s said in a statement: “As a result of a question over title, lot 72 has been withdrawn from the sale with the full agreement of Sotheby’s consignor.”

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato