The earliest dated picture by the 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), one of only two works by the artist left in private hands, will be a highlight of Christie’s Old Masters auction in London next month.

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‘Saint Praxedis’, now firmly attributed to Vermeer, will be offered for sale at Christie’s on July 8. The lead white used in the painting is a precise match for that used in the artist’s ‘Diana and her Companions’.

Saint Praxedis, a 3ft 4in x 2ft 8½in (1m x 82cm) oil on canvas, which is signed and dated 'Meer 1655', was painted when the artist was around 22 or 23. Together with Vermeer's Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (in the National Galleries of Scotland) and Diana and her Companions (in the Mauritshaus, The Hague), it forms a trio of paintings that characterise the early phase of the artist's career before he developed the modern style for which he is now known.

The work was acquired by Barbara Piasecka Johnson in 1987. It will be offered from her collection (with proceeds to benefit the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation) in the auctioneers' evening sale of Old Masters and British paintings on July 8, with hopes of £6m-8m.

Composition and Attribution

The subject of the painting is an obscure early Christian saint from the second century, revered for having cared for the bodies of Christians who died under religious persecution. The composition is borrowed from a Saint Praxedis by the Florentine artist Felice Ficherelli (1607-60). First attributed to Vermeer in 1969, it has been the subject of scholarly discussion ever since, and was fully attributed to the artist in 1986.

The work featured in a monographic exhibition on Vermeer that was held at the National Gallery in Washington and The Mauritshaus from 1995-6 and more recently in the 2012-13 Vermeer exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirnale in Rome where it hung alongside the Ficherelli.

Recent technical analysis conducted by the Rijksmuseum with the Free University, Amsterdam, has endorsed Vermeer's authorship, establishing that the lead white used in the painting is not only consistent with Dutch paintings rather than Italian but is also a precise match with that used for Diana and Her Companions, an established work by Vermeer.

Indeed, it is thought that the same batch of paint may have been used for both paintings.