Sothebys is trumpeting their recent sale of a Rembrandt, St. James the Greater, which went for $25.8 million at a recent Old Masters Auction, but could it be that the sale was actually a disappointment?
The painting comes to us through a Who’s Who of art dealing in the last 2 centuries, and such a provenance should have pushed prices to the stratosphere, but instead St. James came up 3 million short of the high end of its estimate. In many ways, the pieces serves as an Exhibit A1 for what’s problematic with Rembrandts.
Reading through the extensive catalogue note, the subtext that emerges is one of addressing the very real concern of attribution. The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) represented the largest and most expensive single attempt to ever codify concretely any painter’s oeuvre. And they were merciless. I mean, they even deattributed Man with a Golden Helmet (though the internet seems blissfully unaware). And in that sense, St. James the Greater is blessed by the fact that it was executed in 1661, and the RRP stopped their chronological procession with the late 1630s (that was volume III). Their latest publication (volume V) has been on Rembrandt portraits, and there’s no sign that they will soon reach the artist’s late period. And that’s the painting’s saving grace and Achilles heel. Having been done in the 1661 (that’s what the signature says), it comes from the very end of his career. And if there’s a basic rule to valuing any painter’s oeuvre, it’s that early stuff is worth more than later stuff. The precocious thing brings the biggest money. In Rembrandt’s case, that’s an even bigger concern because the older he got, the more likely he was to rely on his students to help finish his work. If there’s one conclusion the RRP came to in their 30+ years of operation, it’s that the unresolvable knot of the Rembrandt oeuvre is not distinguishing the fake from the authentic, it’s determining what percentage of each work was master and what was student. I attach here a grad school paper I wrote in 2004 on the RRP (rembrandt-project.doc), in case you’ve got a bazillion hours to waste. Now the quotes to read very carefully in Sothebys’ catalogue note are those from Ernst van de Wetering. As sole head of the RRP (there was a kind of coup in 1993, when he took total control), he is The Decider for Rembrandt. But his own personal journey in the connoisseurship of this artist is a cautionary tale, and here I quote from comments he made in 2004:
We’re not playing the authority game here. The Corpus was never primarily intended to enable museums to write labels with definitive attributions or to provide financial safety for art investors or dealers or to clues as to the value of property to people dividing an estate. Most people want an authority who says, this is a Rembrandt and this is not a Rembrandt. But our work has little to do with money and with writing museum labels. It’s doing the best we can to reconstruct a segment of art history. (Hochfield, Sylvia. “What is a Real Rembrandt.” Art News. February 2004. p. 92.)
Now the catalogue note goes to great effort to formulate an authentification from van de Wetering but the best they can conjure up is a non-quotation mark paraphrase from the exhibition catalogue from the painting’s recent showing at Rembrandt – Genie auf der Suche by the Berlin Gemäldegalerie (which itself was a classic example of coordinated Art History/Art Market assault, since inclusion in the exhibition was intended to validate the picture a couple of months before it was taken to auction). Most of what they extract from van de Wetering centers on whether St. James the Greater was part of a group of paintings of saints and apostles:
subsequently, in his 2006 exhibition catalogue entry, Ernst van de Wetering, endorsed Arthur Wheelocks proposed core group, which he reproduced together.11
and here’s the accompanying footnote 11:
11 Van de Wetering 2006, p. 396, and reproduced pp. 398-9, figs 1-4. Van de Wetering notes that the inconsistencies between them are found elsewhere in Rembrandts oeuvre, and do not make a convincing case for different authorship within the group.
so we sort of have a back-handed double-negative kind of authentification here, which is good…unless you read footnote number 4:
4 Van de Wetering, 2006, p. 396. Van de Wetering notes that some may have been painted with the assistance of Rembrandts workshop.
Yikes! And there you have it folks, within Sothebys’ own catalogue entry, the Footnote of Death. Here they acknowledge what the very real concern is: that a portion of this work was done by someone other than the master.
And this is only problem number 1. Number 2 is that, despite Rembrandt’s ranking as one of our most canonical painters, neither his period nor his topics are currently sexy. Joseph Duveen himself commented that he had much better luck selling paintings of pretty girls than old men. And it’s worth bringing up Duveen right now, because it appears he owned the painting sometime in the early 20C. By 1913, it’s with a lesser-known NY dealer, Henry Reinhardt, who sells it to Toledo auto magnate John North Willys around 1916. Interesting to note: in the 3 monographs I have in my library on Joseph Duveen, none make mention of Reinhardt, Willys, or this painting, though they mention many other Rembrandts Duveen handled. Could it be that this was one of those works the dealer had found unsaleable because of the subject matter, and so passed it off to a lower-end dealer?
Finally one last thing on the 25.8 million dollar sale price that Sothebys is promoting. That’s with buyers premium of 12% (with 20% on the first $500,000). So the actual hammer would have been around 22 million, and if the estimate was 18-25 million, then it fell 3 million short of the estimate’s high end. Meaning that Sothebys may be in trouble of even losing money on the pre-auction guarantee. Ouch.