A small self-portrait painted in 1632 by Rembrandt is the centerpiece of Sotheby’s live evening auction in London July 28 that could help gauge the art market’s return to normal. Estimated conservatively to bring $14.8 to 19.8 million, the modest picture depicting the artist in formal attire is still a Rembrandt, and is almost sure to bring that price. What it will tell us about the market for anything besides Rembrandt is another question.
Sotheby’s calls the auction a “one-off Evening Sale” in which art from a range of departments will be on the block. Strong bidding will be expected to convince the world that this year is a good time to sell art at auction, whether in an auditorium or on the internet.
Self-Portrait, Half-Length, Wearing a Ruff and Black Hat, 8 5/8 x 6 3/8 in., shows the artist, at 26, dressed in formal garb as he might be seen at a special occasion, said Otto Naumann, the veteran New York dealer who is now Senior Vice President in Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Division.
“That’s one of the selling points of the painting, because he would only do that twice in his entire life,” Naumann said, referring to the artist’s attire.
In self-portraits, Naumann noted, Rembrandt “almost never showed himself the way he would walk around on the street or went to a formal event. He always went, as George Gordon [Sotheby’s Co-Chairman of Old Master Paintings Worldwide] said, to his ‘make-up box,’ to his costume cupboard, and dolled himself up.”
“I think that’s his magic year, 1632,” said Naumann, who attributes the work’s portable size to Rembrandt’s budding romance with his wife-to-be. “He actually made this painting to hand it to Saskia [van Uylenburgh], whom he met in that year, 1632, so she could go back to her little home town and show all of her Mennonite ancestors, who were supporting her—she was an orphan, and they were relatively wealthy, much wealthier than Rembrandt—that she would be marrying someone of success in Amsterdam, somebody who could dress like this.”
“And this is the perfect size, a small painting that she could easily carry back with her,” he added, “That’s only a theory, there’s only circumstantial evidence for it.” Rembrandt and Saskia married the following year, 1633.
If that unverified story were not enough to earn the picture a special place in Rembrandt’s oeuvre and biography, the painting is signed “Rembrant,” a spelling that the artist used for a few works in 1632. A variant spelling would normally brand a work as a fake. Here, Naumann insists, it’s the opposite.
“Somebody signed the name “Rembrant”—without the d—only one person did that, Rembrandt himself,” he said. “If you want to fake a Rembrandt or make a painting that looks like a Rembrandt, why would you pick up on a spelling that he only used for three months?”
Fair enough, but the trade and most scholars refused to accept the Rembrandt attribution when the picture signed “Rembrant” sat for 20 years, unsellable, in the office of a dealer in Paris. Opinions changed when the Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering said it was real.
As the sale approaches, Otto Naumann opined on the estimate set by his employer. “I think that the little self-portrait is very reasonably priced, considering the rarity factor alone,” he wrote in response to a question sent by email.
As for who might buy it, as Old Master collectors emerge from lockdown, Naumann said, “It could be a very good time, because a lot of them haven’t bought anything recently.”
And Old Masters do have new buyers. The Louvre Abu Dhabi bought Rembrandt’s Head of a young man, with clasped hands: Study of the figure of Christ, c. 1648–1656, at Sotheby’s London in 2018 for $12.1 million.
Looking beyond Rembrandt in the Sotheby’s July 28 sale, a painting with a Nazi past has a back-story that could get attention. Dresden, a View of the Moat of the Zwinger, c. 1758, by Bernardo Bellotto, a nephew of the Venetian master Antonio Canaletto, was sold under duress in 1938 by its Jewish owner to Karl Haberstock, a dealer buying art for the “Fuhrer Museum” that the Nazis planned for Hitler’s personal collection. Seized by the Allies, it was on view in the office of the president of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1961 to 2019. It is one of two paintings by Bellotto restituted last year by the German government to the heirs of the department store magnate Max Emden. Dresden, a View of the Moat of the Zwinger is estimated at $3.7 million to $4.96 million.