Souren Melikian reveals why the Rembrandt sold at Christie’s yesterday for £20m had only one bid at the low estimate:
This lack of enthusiasm was striking in a room filled with the world’s leading dealers in Dutch masters, from Otto Naumann and Alfred Bader in the United States to Johnny Van Haeften of London. A glance at the actual work makes it less surprising. The portrait obviously suffered when it was relined about 60 or 70 years ago. This resulted in the flattening of the paint surface and the loss of its texture. Moreover, the picture may have been cropped in the lower area. That impression is reinforced by comparison with Rembrandt’s admirable self-portrait of 1658 in the Frick Collection in New York, or the even greater self-portrait of 1652 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which Christie’s imprudently reproduced in the catalog. In both, the sitter strikes the same frontal posture as in the Christie’s painting and Rembrandt allowed some space between the hand and the lower edge of the composition — in contrast with this week’s portrait, where the tips of the fingers are cut off by the lower edge of the canvas.
Even more worrying is the decayed varnish, which will need to be removed. There is considerable uncertainty as to what the result may turn out to be. As the sale ended, I overheard Mr. Van Haeften, the leading connoisseur dealer specializing in Dutch and Flemish masters, discussing the picture with a colleague. He wistfully remarked that it was “a bargain.” Why didn’t you try to go for it? another dealer asked. “I could not be sure about what will come out after the cleaning,” came the reply.
Two Star Lots Dominate Weak Old Master Sale (New York Times)