Anjana Ahuja likes to buy old paintings like the one above. She shares a story in the Financial Times of the British painting she bought on the intuition that it was truly James Northcote’s work. In the process of authenticating the painting, Ahuja and her husband became confirming evidence in a more famous and contentious dispute over a portrait said to depict Jane Austen:
My husband and I, amateur fans of British portraiture and the owners of another 1803 Northcote with a similar signature and frame, decided to bid. She entered our lives for £400. At best, we had paid a rock-bottom price for a work by one of England’s best-known Georgian portraitists, a pupil and biographer of Sir Joshua Reynolds. At worst, my car boot now contained a nice picture of an old lady in a fancy frame: draped in black satin and lace, perhaps a widow, her enigmatic expression lying somewhere between benevolence and mischief.
And what mischief she has wrought. For the past few months, “Mrs Smith” has plunged us into one of the longest-running and most highly charged disputes ever waged in the art world. And it all comes down to what is on the back of the portrait rather than the front: an imprint of ink on linen. On the reverse of the canvas, at top right, lies the stamp: WM LEGG, High-Holborn, LINEN. Such stamps of artists’ suppliers appear from time to time on portraits that pass through auction rooms, a legacy of the duty payable on canvas in the 18th and 19th centuries.