A New Rembrandt Was Just Discovered. So What?

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(Bloomberg) -- Earlier this February, Pennsylvania’s Allentown Art Museum posted an Instagram video announcing that a work in its collection attributed to Rembrandt’s studio was in fact by the master himself.  

Sent away for a cleaning, layers of varnish and overpaint (a fancy word for touch-ups) were removed by conservators and like a particularly high-stakes episode of Antiques Roadshow, the portrait of a rosy-cheeked woman in exquisite lace from 1632 had its attribution changed for the better. The painting, which was previously worth thousands, now potentially has a multimillion dollar valuation.

A dramatic “rediscovery” along these lines is actually nothing new, dealers say. “It happens quite often,” says the British dealer Simon Dickinson. “Rembrandt is an artist who’s being reappraised all the time. I remember in my early days at Christie’s we sold a Rembrandt for a lot of money, and then it was not accepted by the [now-disbanded] Rembrandt committee. Then about three years later, it was re-accepted.”

This instability in the market is something insiders take for granted. In the most extreme case in history, a painting was bought at auction for a few thousand dollars and then, after cleaning and restoration, determined to be a work by Leonardo da Vinci. It sold in 2017 at Christie’s New York for $450 million

For the broader public however, these questions of  connoisseurship can come as something of a surprise. The art world has literally had centuries to hash it all out. And unlike contemporary art, where values are determined by fashion and hype, the old masters market is supposed to be static. After all, by definition, you can’t make them anymore.

But with works’ attributions constantly in flux, how should the casual observer attempt to understand an artwork’s value? 

A New Rembrandt Was Just Discovered. So What?

“It can be quite a subjective area, and that’s what makes people nervous about old masters as a field,” says Charles Beddington, whose Mayfair old masters gallery specializes in Canaletto. “Opinions can change. But it doesn’t happen that often.”

Why Attributions Change

Many of the Italian and Dutch old master painters who are famous now—Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Canaletto and others— were just as famous when they were alive, and most had massive studios with dozens of painters churning out commissions. 

Some of these commissions would be painted by the artists themselves; others would be executed by their studios, after which the artist would add some finishing touches; still others would be done entirely by the studio. (The same thing happens today with marquee artists such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst, and official Obama portrait artist Kehinde Wiley.)

On top of that, these artists would often have imitators—can’t afford a Canaletto? No problem, there were plenty of other reasonably-priced Venetian cityscapes to choose from.

A New Rembrandt Was Just Discovered. So What?

As a result, there are artworks that are famously, indisputably by Rembrandt, and then there “are a number of borderline Rembrandts, which some people accept and others don’t,” Dickinson says. “But if it’s a great picture, it’s unlikely to have its attribution overturned.”

And that leaves the not-necessarily-great paintings, of which there are many, dispersed across the globe.

“There’s the old joke, Rembrandt painted 300 pictures, of which 600 are in America,” says the dealer Johnny van Haeften. “And certainly in the days before great scholarship, if it was a portrait of an old man in brown it was a Rembrandt, and if it was a landscape with a blue sky it was a Breughel.”

Now though, he says “we can narrow it down to a much more precise authorship.”

When Attributions Change

“Discoveries are what make this field interesting” Beddington says. “I think there are many more discoveries than one ever hears about.”

A New Rembrandt Was Just Discovered. So What?

By discoveries, Beddington is referring to paintings that, for whatever reason, have been mis-attributed, and are thus valued at virtually nothing.

“The best way to do it is find something in a smaller sale that’s completely mis-catalogued, and no one’s spotted it,” he says. “Maybe it can be bought for way less than it’s worth. But it works both ways, because often you find things that [sell for] far more than they ought to, because you've got several people thinking they’ve made a fantastic discovery.”

Last January, a drawing “recently recognized by a number of leading scholars as an autograph work by Raphael” sold at Sotheby’s New York for $795,000.

In 2015, a New Jersey auction house estimated a painting at $500 to $800; it sold for $870,000 after two bidders correctly identified the work as a Rembrandt.

Similarly, in 2007 a painting described as a 17th century copy of a Rembrandt was valued at about $3,000 at a regional auction house in England; it sold for about $4.5 million, after which it was also authenticated as the real thing. The Getty Center in Los Angeles later purchased the work for a reported $25 million. 

And then, of course, there’s that $450 million Leonardo, now cruising on a super yacht.

A New Rembrandt Was Just Discovered. So What?

Despite these high profile sensations, the market can still be fertile ground.

“I bought something by a very big-name artist for nothing in a small sale the other day,” Beddington says. “I was absolutely astonished that no one else noticed.”

What It Means For You

Continuous reappraisal in the old masters market is, from the right angle, only good news for an interested public.

A New Rembrandt Was Just Discovered. So What?

The Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum are not going to be uncovered as fakes any time soon, but there’s an element of mystery and endless potential for the dozens of paintings and drawings that may or may not be the work of a genius.

Moreover, this uncertainty can add an organic element to a field that laypeople often consider musty, even boring in comparison to the dynamism and drama of contemporary art.

“When the really, really reliable expert on Frans Hals died at an advanced aged, suddenly a year or two later there were a lot of new Frans Hals paintings popping up," Beddington says. “The new Frans Hals expert has a totally different approach than the old Frans Hals expert” to authentication.

Old masters paintings, in other words, can change with the times just like everything else.

“Some things do reappear,” Van Haeften says. “That’s part of the excitement of dealing with old masters. You just have to think out of the box and keep an open mind.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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