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What Happened to The Rembrandt?


Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, c.1628, 18.7 x 26.6 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Sotheby's Masters Week Sale kicked off in New York, Thursday 28th of January, 2021.

Showcasing Old Master drawings, paintings and sculptures, with many of the diverse array of works not seen publicly in centuries. Leading up to the first of the seven auctions in the Masters Week series, two paintings were placed on a pedestal by the auction house: Sandro Botticelli's Young Man Holding a Roundel and Rembrandt van Rijn's Abraham with the Angels.

The purchase of the Botticelli marked the first major sale of 2021 - achieving $92.2 million - an auction record for the artist. The previous auction record for Botticelli was achieved at Christie’s New York in 2013 when The Rockefeller Madonna sold for $10,442,500.

"With over 1.3 million people watching, Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a young man holding a roundel made history during Sotheby's Masters Week".

Rembrandt van Rijn's Abraham with the Angels, with an estimate of $20-30 million, was also readied for sale and elevated by the auction house. This small (16 x 21 cm) panel was promoted has having excellent provenance - tracing back to its initial transaction in 1647 - a year after its execution. It was also noted to be a rare Old Testament scene (one of only twenty-nine) by the Dutch master. Exclamations from the auction house only spurred excitement surrounding, what was then, the upcoming sale.

"This is almost certainly the last opportunity to acquire a painting of a biblical narrative from the Old Testament by Rembrandt"

Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham with the Angels, 1646, 16.1 x 21.2 cm, oil on oak panel, Private Collection.

However, my interest was sparked when I read about the Rembrandt's sudden and unexpected withdrawal from the auction shortly before it began. Intriguingly, its disappearance was simply brushed under the table. While the success of the Botticelli portrait made headlines - the withdrawal of Rembrandt's rare biblical scene was skimmed over. The hyped-up painting was dramatically retracted, initially with no explanation given. Often plastered as 'standard' auction practice, withdrawing art works prior to the sale occurs more often than you might think. While its not uncommon to withdraw lots prior to auction, it often sparks speculation as to why the work will no longer be put on the block, especially if it occurs at such short notice. Issues surrounding legal title and authenticity are two assumptions that come to mind.


Provenance: A Brief Summary

The painting can be traced back to a transaction in 1647 between the two merchants Martin van den Broeck and Andries Ackersloot. From there it is recorded in the 1669 inventory of Ferdinad Bol (A student of Rembrandt) as "Abraham en de engelen, Rembrandt". It has passed through many notable collections, including that of Jan Six (A cloth merchant, known patron of the arts and friend of Rembrandt). It even found its way into the collection of American artist, Benjamin West. The last time the work was sold publicly was in 1848 for £64 (today's equivalent of $8,200).

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Jan Six, 1654, 112 x 102 cm, oil, Six Collection Amsterdam.

Eventually settling in The Pannwitz Collection (Now The Aurora Foundation), it remained there until it was sold to the art dealer and collector Otto Naumann (appointed as Senior Vice President of Sotheby's in 2018), in 2004 for an undisclosed amount. Now, this is where it gets a little on the sticky side with varying reports on exactly when and to whom the painting was sold after its time in The Pannwitz Collection. Interestingly, Artnet News reported that neither Naumann nor Sotheby’s would comment on the identity of the consignor, but believe that Naumann sold the painting privately to Mark Fisch (A trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in 2006.

However, The Art Newspaper reports that the work was purchased by Fisch alongside Alfred Badar (Philanthropist and art collector) in 2005, with a price range hovering around £5 million - apparently - according to Jan Six XI (A direct descendant of Jan Six the cloth merchant, art collector and friend of Rembrandt). How these two individuals know each other and the reason why/how they both decided to purchase the Rembrandt is mysterious. Alfred Badar passed away in 2018 at the age of 94. Therefore, this could explain why the work was consigned to (and subsequently withdrawn from) auction last week by Mark Fisch.

Or - conversely (and frankly, what makes logical sense) - The Art Market Monitor reports that the painting was acquired by Alfred Badar in 2004 before it was sold to Naumann. It then states that Naumann then sold the painting to the present owner in 2005 (believed to be Mark Fisch) for approximately $20 million. This information was derived from a 2005 New York Times article reporting on an anonymous New Jersey collector who bought the painting from Otto Naumann and was lending it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Just to throw a spanner in the works, Sotheby's claims that the painting remained with the Pannwitz family "for at least 90 years. The painting has remained in the same collection since it was last sold privately in 2005".

Abraham with the Angels has a complete and detailed provenance history, up to its acquisition by Naumann in 2004, which can be found here and need I say, it contradicts the statement from Sotheby's, noting the sale in 2004 to Otto Naumann and subsequent private sale to an unknown buyer in 2005, before it was withdrawn from the Sotheby's New York auction in 2021.



An Authentic Rembrandt?

Discovering that a work is a fake or forgery often ignites action and the work is withdrawn from the auction immediately. Although, it seems highly improbable that this work by Rembrandt is inauthentic, due to a number of factors. Firstly, the work is traceable back to 1647, with unbroken provenance until it leaves The Pannwitz Collection.

"This painting is one of the most extensively documented I've ever encountered"

- Otto Naumann in The New York Times

Secondly, in regards to the style and signature, it must be noted that the well-renowned and highly respected Rembrandt scholar, Ernst van de Wetering, has also attributed the painting to the hand of Rembrandt stating that the "Unmistakably Rembrandtesque character of its conception and execution is unquestionably authentic. Moreover, this is almost certainly the 'Abraham with the three angels by Rembrandt' that was described in a transaction between two merchants in Amsterdam in 1647".

Similarly, Jan Six (XI) commented that the work is “a pristine Rembrandt, signed and dated with a fantastic provenance. It’s the perfect cabinet picture you could wish for”. Ultimately, the question of what happened to rare Old Testament scene by the great renowned Dutch Master is still lingering. The Art Newspaper recorded an ever-ambiguous statement from the auction house regarding its withdrawal;

"The painting was withdrawn following discussions with the consignor. It’s a fabulous work - one of the finest by the artist ever to appear on the market - and was much admired by viewers around the world prior to the sale. While we didn’t get to see it sell in the room tonight, it will nonetheless find a new home very soon"

Hinting that this rare, little Rembrandt could have to endure yet another private sale. ArtNews has recently confirmed this speculation by reporting that the small, Old Testament scene was retracted from the public auction and instead sold privately, within its estimate, through Sotheby's ever-growing private sales channel last Tuesday.

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