Christie’s Auction of the Controversial Rice Portrait of Jane Austen

April 19, 2007 update - The Rice Portrait failed to sell at Christie’s “Important Old Master Paintings Part I” sale today in New York. After lackluster bidding for two and a fraction minutes by two in-room bidders—which started at $280,000 and reached $350,000—the portrait was withdrawn, clearly having failed to meet its reserve price. Christie’s had estimated the sale at $400,000 to $800,000.

Jane Austen
The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen
Christie's Images Ltd. 2007

By Elsa A. Solender

Christie’s-New York will offer the controversial “Rice Portrait of Jane Austen” at an auction of “Important Old Master Paintings” on Thursday, April 19, 2007 at 10 am. The estimated sale price of the painting is US $400,000 to $800,000.

Readers of JASNA News may recall reports on previous efforts to sell the painting by the owner, Henry Rice, a collateral descendant of Jane Austen through her third-eldest brother, Edward Austen, who later took the name Knight.

In autumn of 2004, the painting was offered by Mr. Rice on tender by the Timothy Sammons Gallery. The asking price at that time was $3 million. The picture was not sold. The previous price brought by an Ozias Humphry portrait (in the mid-1990's) had been $46,500.

Mr. Rice graciously exhibited The Rice Portrait for JASNA at the 1995 AGM in Madison, Wisconsin. Some viewers have been charmed by the full-length image depicting a young girl with very short hair, who is wearing a white dress with raised waistline and puffed sleeves and carries a green parasol. She is shown against a landscape background. Proponents of the image as Jane Austen find the round face of the girl strikingly similar to the famous “Cassandra sketch” of the novelist owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. That Gallery has declined to purchase The Rice Portrait.

Others have been frankly skeptical that the subject is Jane Austen. No recorded family discussion of the painting at or near the time of its execution is known to exist, and experts have said that various elements of the girl’s costume, as well as her hairstyle, did not appear in England until Jane Austen was a much older woman. At least two costume authorities, however, refute that point and suggest that her aristocratic French cousin might have introduced the Austen women and girls to French Empire fashion elements well before their arrival in England.

Heavyweight Austen scholars have weighed in on both sides of the controversy, often with considerable heat. A lengthy bibliography and discussion of the controversy is offered by Christie’s, although the fact that the auction house places its prestige squarely in favor of the image as the young Jane Austen is a testimonial that could carry considerable weight with a prospective buyer.

The “pro” camp believes that Jane’s wealthy Great Uncle Francis Austen commissioned the portrait from Ozias Humphry in 1790 (when Jane would have been 14 or 15), along with companion pictures of her sister Cassandra (“unlocated”) and “possibly” her brother Edward, as well. Francis Austen is argued to have likely ordered the picture(s) to enhance the marriage prospects of the Austen sisters.

The Christie’s offering affirms their experts’ belief that “the provenance of the Rice portrait is impeccable.” This judgment relies heavily on references by two branches of the Austen family to the image as that of Jane Austen, the novelist, and its use in certain nineteenth century books as a frontispiece. Christie’s has also reproduced glowing testimonials from long-time Rice supporter Claudia Johnson of the Princeton University Department of English, and Brian Stewart, the art historian with whom she is collaborating on a forthcoming book about the Rice Portrait to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

The New York Times, reporting the upcoming sale, quoted Mr. Rice’s confidence in the authenticity of the image and Professor Johnson’s ringing endorsement of his belief, but also added comments representative of more skeptical London art dealers and museum curators who suggest that any purported image of Jane Austen, like any of William Shakespeare, ought to be treated with the utmost caution. Mr. Rice has stated that he believes American buyers are more “open-minded” than prospective British purchasers.

Elsa A. Solender is an independent scholar living in New York City. She was President of JASNA from 1996 to 2000.