From the basement to the gallery wall: masterworks plucked from obscurity

From the basement to the gallery wall: masterworks plucked from obscurity
Rembrandt - Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert [1633]. Photo from Flickr, Gandalf's Gallery. Creative Commons License 2.0

The small, postcard-sized painting known as Head of a Bearded Man, has once again regained pride of place in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum after years in storage. The Rembrandt Research Project had branded the work a fake in 1981, but recent dendrochronological analysis found that the portrait of a weary old man had been painted on a wood panel cut from the same oak tree used for Rembrandt’s Andromeda Chained to the Rocks. With the finding suggesting that the bearded man painting was certainly from Rembrandt’s workshop and might have been painted by the master himself, the Ashmolean integrated the painting into its ongoing Young Rembrandt exhibition.

The discovery brought vindication to the Ashmolean’s curator of northern European art, An Van Camp, who had always had her suspicions that the painting might be a genuine Rembrandt due to its similarity to other works that the old master painted while living in Leiden around 1630. Amazingly, however, the Bearded Man is far from the only painting to emerge from obscurity and be recognized as the real deal—or even the only Rembrandt.

Earlier this year, the Allentown Art Museum in upstate Pennsylvania reported that Portrait of a Young Woman, a 1632 painting they had been displaying as the work of some of Rembrandt’s studio assistants, was in fact an authentic Rembrandt. The discovery came after the painting was sent to New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts for a routine cleaning and conservationists thought they spotted tell-tale signs of Rembrandt’s vivid brushwork through layers of thick varnish which had been slapped on in the early 20th century. High-tech investigations, including X-rays, infrared, and electron microscopy only cemented their belief that Rembrandt himself had painted the work which the Allentown Art Museum owned.

Like Head of a Bearded Man, Portrait of a Young Woman was initially displayed as a Rembrandt—before the Rembrandt Research Project, a group of Dutch art historians, said that the painting was too murky to be the work of the great master—who was so known for his expert rendering of light and shadow that a style of photography known as “Rembrandt lighting” has cropped up. The murkiness in Portrait of a Young Woman, apparently, was merely the result of a previous restorer’s heavy hand with the varnish, and the painting is set to be the centrepiece of an exhibition, Rembrandt Revealed, which will be held at the small Pennsylvania museum sometime next year, Covid-19 situation permitting.

In 2013, meanwhile, the UK’s National Trust had leading Rembrandt scholar Ernst van de Wetering examine a mystery portrait which had been donated to the heritage charity and had been sitting in storage. The X-ray analysis strongly suggested that the painting, previously thought to have been by one of the artists in Rembrandt’s studio, was in fact a self-portrait by the artist himself, painted when he was about 29 years old and worth an estimated $30 million.

One of the most famous cases of a blockbuster authentication, of course, is that of the Salvator Mundi. The amazing story of the painting’s discovery, authentication as a Leonardo da Vinci, involvement in what’s been described as the “largest art fraud in history”, record-breaking sale and then abrupt disappearance is so captivating that it’s not surprising that it’s going to be the subject of a major Broadway musical, currently slated to come to the Great White Way in 2022.

The painting of Christ with his hand raised in benediction was reportedly commissioned for the French royal family and accompanied Queen Henrietta to England in 1625 when she married King Charles I; it disappeared from view for more than a hundred and fifty years, resurfacing as part of the holdings of Virginia-based collector Sir Frederick Cook. By the time Cook acquired the 26-inch tall painting, it was in bad shape after botched restoration attempts and its da Vinci authorship had been forgotten. The painting sold for a mere £45 at auction in 1958, then again faded into the ether until New York art dealer Robert Simon stumbled upon it in 2005 at an estate auction in Louisiana.

Simon, who specialised in Italian and Spanish art from between 1300 and 1800, was particularly well-placed to spot a gem in the rough like the beat-up Salvator Mundi. He left the painting in the capable hands of his long-time friend, NYU restorer Dianne Modestini, who painstakingly stripped away layers of dirt and overpainting. Though her efforts exposed how badly the painting had been damaged over the years—it had even been crudely glued back together in places where the wood panel had cracked—it also gave her and Simon the first indications that the underlying painting might be the da Vinci original, long believed lost, rather than an inferior copy.

The most important of these tantalising hints was the discovery that, in the raw painting, Christ had two right thumbs—something that art historians refer to as a “pentimento”, a second thought on the artist’s part. Such a decision to shift the position of Christ’s finger was a strong indication that the painting was in fact the original, because a copyist generally would not have such a “second thought”.

The Salvator Mundi was triumphantly unveiled as an “autograph” da Vinci in 2011’s blockbuster Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery—the first new work attributed to Leonardo since the Benois Madonna, held in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, was uncovered in 1909. The painting’s journey from anonymity in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to one of London’s premier museums was sensational enough. Since then, however, the da Vinci has featured in two more art world dramas: the so-called Bouvier Affair and the painting’s mysterious disappearance after it was sold in 2017 for $450 million over Christie’s auction block.

Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier bought the Salvator Mundi from Sotheby’s, representing Simon and a group of other dealers, in 2013 for $83 million and immediately turned around and sold it to his long-time client, Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $127.5 million. This incredible mark-up, Rybolovlev eventually found out, was par for the course for Bouvier, who made more than $1 billion in profits on the 38 masterpieces he sold to Rybolovlev between 2003 and 2014.

Dmitry Rybolovlev has since sued his former art dealer, as well as Sotheby’s—the auction house which facilitated 12 out of the 38 sales—alleging that they worked together to defraud him out of a total of $1 billion ($380 million of which Sotheby’s allegedly had a hand in), and that Yves Bouvier, as his agent, had only been entitled to a 2% commission for each work`. Bouvier, in turn, has claimed he was acting as an independent seller rather than as Rybolovlev’s representative, and that the hefty mark-ups—and any tactics he deployed to convinced Rybolovlev to pay top dollar— were legitimate methods that were part of the “commercial game” he played.

These unconventional tactics often included, as in the case of the Salvator Mundi, the invention of a fictitious third-party seller who Bouvier apparently pretended to bargain with. After Yves Bouvier had already bought the da Vinci for $83 million, he wrote to Rybolovlev’s representatives feigning tough negotiations with the Salvator Mundi’s owners, stating that they had rejected a bid of $100 million “without a moment’s hesitation” and that the $127.5 million Dmitry Rybolovlev eventually paid was “a very good deal”. Bouvier apparently also kept Robert Simon and the other sellers in the dark, as they claimed that they had been played by the swift mark-up before resolving the issue in a confidential dispute out of court with Sotheby’s.

If the Salvator Mundi is still cropping up in court documents as part of Rybolovlev and Bouvier’s ongoing legal battle, it doesn’t look likely to crop up on a gallery wall anytime soon. After extensive hype—auctioneers described the painting as “the holy grail of our business” and compared its discovery to that of a new planet—the Salvator Mundi sold at Christie’s in 2017 for a whopping $450.3 million, making it by far the most expensive artwork ever to cross the auction block.

The buyer was a Saudi prince, believed by many to be a proxy for the Kingdom’s controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS), and the newly-minted Louvre Abu Dhabi announced that the da Vinci masterwork would soon hang on its walls and would travel to Paris for the Louvre’s blockbuster 2019 Leonardo retrospective.

The Salvator Mundi, however, never made it to the exhibit in Paris—or even to the museum on Saadiyat Island; in fact, the last time the painting was seen in public was the day it was auctioned off at Christie’s. Weeks before the Louvre Abu Dhabi was set to triumphantly unveil the da Vinci, the exhibition was abruptly delayed, sparking a flurry of questions about what had gone wrong and where the painting was. The work was conspicuously absent from the Louvre’s massive exhibition to commemorate the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, though leaked plans revealed that the Paris museum had hoped until the last minute to be able to show the painting. Two versions of the exhibition catalogue were even produced—one including the painting and one without it.

The whereabouts of the painting which only a few years ago captivated the art world and fetched nearly half a billion dollars remain a mystery, though plenty of ink has been spilled on speculation. Is the painting cruising around the Mediterranean on Mohammed bin Salman’s yacht? Is it languishing in an ultra-secure freeport in Switzerland? Did renewed doubts spring up over the painting’s authenticity?

It’s easy to imagine how the painting could have been lost to the sands of time back in the 19th century, or how Rembrandt’s trademark brushwork could have temporarily been concealed by the thick varnish slapped on by a sloppy restorer. How a da Vinci could be plucked from obscurity to become one of the world’s most famous paintings, only to disappear again, all the in the span of a few years, is a mystery that will continue to captivate the art world for years to come.