- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NEW YORK

One of the hottest items on the auction block this spring is a portrait of a teenager in a white dress, holding a green parasol.

There’s a reason for the fascination: The work to be sold by Christie’s on April 19 is the only known oil painting of noted British author Jane Austen — or is it?

The owner of the painting, by the 18th-century British artist Ozias Humphry, is an Austen descendant, Henry Rice, who inherited the artwork from his father. Mr. Rice says the painting has always been in the family, and he and his relatives are convinced that it’s Austen. The painting is believed to have been commissioned around 1790 by Austen’s great-uncle.

In London, costume expert Aileen Ribeiro says the Empire waistline of the girl’s dress, with full short sleeves, and her flat shoes is a style that came into fashion in England only in the 19th century, when Austen was much older.

Nevertheless, a number of academics, including Austen scholar Claudia Johnson of Princeton University and Brian Southam, chairman of the Jane Austen Society of North America, have dismissed such evidence as insubstantial and casual.

Miss Johnson, who calls the provenance of the painting “formidable,” notes that Austen, author of such works as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” had a cousin in France and could have followed the French fashion of the time, including the Empire waistline.

Experts at Christie’s support the belief that “The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen” is in fact Austen. Piers Davies, a Christie’s authority on old master paintings, says Austen’s nephews and nieces considered the portrait to be of her.

The pre-auction estimate for the work Christie’s calls “one of the most important portraits in the history of English literature” is $400,000 to $800,000.

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