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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 April 2007, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
No takers for 'Austen portrait'
Jane Austen portrait being sold in New York in April
The portrait was put up for sale by one of Jane Austen's descendants

A rare and contentious portrait of the esteemed novelist Jane Austen has failed to sell at a New York auction.

There are few reliable pictures of the writer, who died in 1817.

Relatives had always accepted the picture by Ozias Humphry was of Austen - but scholars are divided over the true identity of its young subject.

The portrait of a girl in a white dress was being sold by a distant relative of the writer and had been expected to fetch up to $800,000 (400,000).

A few weeks ago, a publishing house decided it needed to glamorise the portrait on a book cover because the writer was "not much of a looker".

She was quite a naughty girl, she had all this great energy
Henry Rice
Austen descendant
A drawing by her sister Cassandra, held by London's National Portrait Gallery, shows Austen looking grumpy.

The oil painting up for sale at Christie's shows a girl walking outside with a resemblance to Austen.

Current owner Henry Rice, who is descended from Austen's brother Edward, said: "It's got incredible vitality. I know people who've hung this picture in galleries and been in tears when they've left it.

"She was quite a naughty girl, she had all this great energy, a rebel, and her books are really about the frustrations of her life, which must've been amazingly painful for her."

However, the National Portrait Gallery does not believe the portrait is of the writer. Some doubters say the style of dress is from the wrong period.

But Mr Rice said: "Because all my ancestors who were contemporary of Jane Austen said it was her, unless I have to tell them they're all liars, that is something I have to accept and that is exactly what the situation is."

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