A portrait inscribed W Beechey London 1786 that sold for £12,000 at Hannams.

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The 12½ x 10¼in (32 x 26cm) oil on board emerged on January 29 at a winter auction in Hampshire.

According to the catalogue at Hannams (23% buyer’s premium) in Selborne, it had provenance to a “prominent private titled estate” although no further details about the history and source of the consignment were available.

The picture had a number of condition problems, including paint loss to the upper section, but it had an inscription to the lower right W Beechey London 1786.

Sir William Beechey (1753-1839) was an eminent portrait painter at the time – he would become an official portraitist to Queen Charlotte in 1793 – and many of his works have sold at auction for strong five-figure and, on occasion, six-figure sums.

While rare in comparison to his British subjects, the artist is known to have painted a few Eastern sitters such as his 1810 portrait of the Persian diplomat Mirza Abu’l Hassan Khan which sold for £155,000 at Christie’s in 2006.

Mysterious Moonshee

Beechey also received commissions from the East India Company, including the above work, and it is not inconceivable that the subject of the current picture was a diplomat or part of the entourage of a Maharaja who visited England.

The Hannams catalogue described it as ‘Portrait of an Indian Maharaja’, although the back of the work carried an indistinct inscription that seemed to refer to the sitter as ‘Moonshee’ – meaning a writer, clerk or teacher.

With the estimate set at the here-to-be-sold level of £200-300, it drew an intense competition and was eventually knocked down at £12,000.

While the auction house said that “both the buyer and vendor have requested anonymity at this stage”, it will be interesting to see if the sitter can be identified and if the work re-emerges at some point.