Art historians cast doubt over Earl Spencer's £9m Rubens

All eyes are on the star lot of the Althorp sale – but for the wrong reasons

Leading art historians have cast doubt over the authenticity of a £9m painting attributed to Rubens, which was sold by the family of Diana, Princess of Wales, last week. Portrait of a Commander Being Dressed for Battle was the star lot in a three-day sale of chattels from the Althorp estate held by Christie's, which netted £21m for Earl Spencer, the house's owner and brother of the late princess.

But The Independent on Sunday has learnt that Sotheby's, a rival auction house, had initially been offered the sale, but did not go ahead after an external art consultant refused to confirm the painting's provenance. A spokesman for Sotheby's declined to discuss the matter last night, saying: "Sotheby's never comments on sales it doesn't conduct."

Although £9m is the second highest price paid for a work by the Flemish master Sir Peter Paul Rubens, the painting only reached the lower end of its estimate, which was set between £8m and £12m. Brian Sewell, a leading art historian, added to speculation it might not be a Rubens, calling it "an uncomfortable Rubens".

"It's one of those pictures that doesn't quite ring true", he said. "It doesn't surprise me Sotheby's turned it down. I know from my own experience working at Christie's that you very quickly cause grave offence if you express doubts to people who think they own a genuine painting by an old master. People do behave astonishingly."

A spokesman for Christie's said that the auction house had undertaken rigorous research to confirm the painting's provenance, and that it had been vouched for by a panel of academics. However, an outline of the painting's provenance in the catalogue is thick with caveats, almost every paragraph starting with the word "possibly".

A fuller description of its provenance reveals that opinion has been consistently divided, and for nearly 100 years it was attributed to the "school of Pourbus". Only after the Second World War, in an exhibition of pictures from Althorp at Agnew's, was it fully attributed to Rubens.

The portrait, which was bought by an anonymous buyer, was one of 775 items sold by the trustees of the 14,000-acre Althorp estate in Northamptonshire, to raise money for essential work needed on the house, including a new roof. The much publicised sale laid the earl open to accusations of hypocrisy, after he had previously attacked his late father's second wife, Raine, for selling off some of the house's contents in the 1980s. But the earl now has to support six children and two ex-wives, and is due to marry his third wife, Lady Bianca Eliot, later this year.

Sewell, art critic for the London Evening Standard, said that authenticating pictures was one of the main difficulties faced by auction houses. "It's a moral dilemma they face so frequently," he said. "Is it the job of an auctioneer, as the mere engineer of a sale, to express his doubts? Auction houses have been responsible for the rediscovery of a lot of important works, and I'm wholly in favour of both auction houses, but they do have to tread a very fine line. But frankly I think anything under twenty million is cheap for a Rubens."

Earl Spencer was unavailable for comment last night.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before