April 19, 2007 / 6:19 PM / 13 years ago

Controversial Jane Austen portrait fails to sell

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A portrait of a young girl that some believe is the only known painting of English novelist Jane Austen failed to sell at auction on Thursday.

"The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen" by English society artist Ozias Humphry in an undated image courtesy of Christie's. The controversial picture of a young girl which many believe to be the only known painting of Austen goes on sale in New York on Thursday and is expected to fetch up to 400,000 pounds. REUTERS/Christie's/Handout

Christie’s said no one offered the owner’s minimum price for the painting that had been expected to fetch between $400,000 and $800,000.

A spokeswoman for the auction house said the minimum level was kept secret.

The portrait by English society artist Ozias Humphry was put up for sale by Henry Rice, a distant relative of the writer of classics such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” who died in 1817.

Rice has said the sale of the work, which some experts have said does not depict Austen, had stirred up controversy.

In 1948, a leading Austen scholar dismissed the authenticity of the portrait, saying the style of costume the subject wears does not match the date.

But Rice and his family have said they never doubted the girl wearing a long white dress and carrying a parasol was their ancestor. The painting is thought to date from 1788 or 1789 when Austen would have been about 14.

Rice had the painting examined by academics including Austen scholar Claudia Johnson at Princeton University, and they supported the original attribution and subject matter.

“The painting had rather fallen into the abyss,” Rice told Reuters in an interview last month. “So I decided to take up the challenge and found that many of the arguments against the painting (being of Austen) were extremely weak.

“Effectively they were calling us liars. Then we really started a bit of a crusade,” he added.

“We were lucky in the people we met, including quite a lot of Americans, and the thing gathered strength, but there was fierce resistance and there probably still will be.”

He offered the painting to the National Portrait Gallery in London several times, but officials there turned it down because of doubts over its authenticity.

“So we decided to take it to America where it has more friends,” he said.

Christie’s auctioneers say they were sufficiently sure of recent research to go ahead with the sale.

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