SIR Benjamin Slade, owner of 13th century Maunsel House, says he has placed a “curse” on anyone who buys a particular 18th century painting at an auction.

The North Newton aristocrat wants to obtain a portrait of a woman which appraisers say dates back to 1710 and which is currently in the hands of American auctioneers.

The painting is believed to have been owned and managed as part of Sir Benjamin’s sister Sarah Jane Slade’s estate but, after she died in 1978, research indicates that the owner of an estate in Williamsburg, Virginia, purchased the painting in 1979.

But Sir Benjamin told the County Gazette: “The painting was part of a set passed down through my family that disappeared.

“I think this was part of a collection which was handed to my sister to look after.

“She placed a few items in storage at Taunton and others elsewhere.

“We need to prove it belongs to us, and that means going through our archives all the way back to the 1960s to try to find some form of storage receipt.”

American auctioneer Phoebus Auction Gallery was hired to manage the Williamsburg estate after the owner died and the painting was to be sold at auction on January 1.

But Sir Benjamin says he has put the painting on an art loss register, preventing it from being sold.

He said: “I said that not only would I sue them if it was sold, but I placed a curse on the painting so that if anyone but me buys it they’ll die.

“I’ve cursed quite a few people and they’ve all dropped down dead.”

Betty Ann Thomas, a research assistant for the gallery, says the portrait has been valued at about $10,000.

She said: “On the back of the frame we saw a sticker from a frame-maker in London with the name Sarah Jane Slade.

“It is very light, almost like it was written in pencil.

“On a separate sticker we saw the name Benjamin Slade.

“I’m thinking this painting was part of a ‘storage wars’ situation.

“Sarah Jane died, no one paid for the storage facility and they auctioned it off – that’s probably what happened, but I don’t know.”

Gallery appraiser Bill Welch and owner Gail Wolpin say they have asked for proof that the painting was stolen, but say Sir Benjamin has only responded with threats and curses.

Gail Wolpin said: “Our goal in all of this is to get the painting to its rightful owner.

“We’re going to get it to the right place.”

The painting remains in storage until the dispute is settled.