341 The transparent connoisseur 3: The 30 million pound question

A wrong call by the Rembrandt Research Project (“the authority on Rembrandt and has final say in whether a painting is genuine”- Wikipedia) cost the heirs of the generous art collector Harold Samuel a not so small fortune. Schwartz tells the tale and discusses the issues involved.

By all appearances, a later rescinded judgment by the Rembrandt Research Project (“the authority on Rembrandt [with] final say in whether a painting is genuine” – Wikipedia) cost the heirs of the generous art collector Harold Samuel a not so small fortune. Schwartz tells the tale and discusses the issues involved.


Rembrandt (1606 or 1607-1669), Self-portrait, 1635
Oil on panel, 90.5 x 71.8 cm.
Buckland Abbey (National Trust)

Last year an exhibition was held in Buckland Abbey, a National Trust holding in the Devon countryside, around a painting by and of Rembrandt van Rijn. The painting shows Rembrandt at his most dandyish, with a big plume in his hat and a magnificent velvet cloak. He is wearing a gorget of the kind he sported on several earlier self-portraits, no later ones. The occasion for the exhibition was phrased by the Abbey thus:

A self-portrait, previously doubted as being a genuine Rembrandt, has now been scientifically verified as being from the Dutch Old Master’s own hand.

Regular readers of the Schwartzlist know what I think about claims like this, so I don’t have to say that if libel against the truth were a punishable offense in the United Kingdom, whoever published this claim would have been tried and I’m sure convicted. There is no way to scientifically verify a painting as being from Rembrandt’s own hand. The furthest one can come with scientific examination is to establish that a given painting is in accordance with what we know of his practice. That is certainly the case of this painting.

More interesting is the half-told story of how the painting became the property of the National Trust. Buckland Abbey says: “Our Rembrandt portrait was part of a group transferred from the estate of the late Lady Samuel of Wych Cross.” Lady Samuel was the widow of Lord Harold Samuel of Wych Cross (1912-1987), who built “the most distinguished private collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings to be assembled in England since the war.” The bulk of the collection, 84 old masters, was willed by Lord Samuel upon his death to the city of London, where it graces Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor. (The quotation is from Peter Sutton’s catalogue of the Harold Samuel Collection.) Eight paintings not included in the bequest, including the Rembrandt, were left to Edna, Lady Samuel. When she died in 2008, she left the paintings to the National Trust, with the proviso that each of her two daughters was free to choose one for herself.

Neither daughter chose the Rembrandt. Why? Because, as the family tells me, a leading London auction house had assured them that the painting was not worth more than about £20,000. So the daughters chose paintings that had sentimental value for them. They and their children are awestruck that the National Trust now puts a value of £30,000,000 on the painting.

And why should an auction house, which stood to earn a sizeable fee had it sold the painting as a Rembrandt, have valued it at 1/1500th of its worth? Without knowing the dates or facts of the case, there is no doubt in my mind that they did so because they consulted vol. III of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings and looked no further.

Until the appearance of vol. III in 1989, nearly all cataloguers of Rembrandt’s paintings had considered the Samuel painting to be a self-portrait by the master. In vol. III of the Corpus the Rembrandt Research Project departed from this tradition and criticized the painting in notably disparaging terms. (Disclosure: in my own book on Rembrandt of 1984, I did not include this self-portrait. I did so on the authority of Horst Gerson, who had suggested in 1969 that the panel was by Govert Flinck.)

This is what the auction house will have read about the painting in the book that was the ultimate arbiter of authenticity in Rembrandt paintings.

At first sight the painting has a certain impact… On closer inspection, however, no. C 92 exhibits a great many jarring features… it is disappointing to see how clumsily the structure of the body relates to the arms hidden beneath the cloak; the depiction of form is so poor that large areas of the painting have a strange emptiness. This extends to the head, where the rather uncertain modelling in the lit and shadow parts produces hardly any effect…; the eye area, in shadow, is not only fairly flat… but is also weak and insensitive in its linear construction. Brushwork and use of paint do lead, seen overall, to rembrandtesque effects, but they differ quite decisively from Rembrandt’s own… The remarkably diffuse appearance of the X-ray… in this respect must be termed untypical for Rembrandt…. The signature and date on the painting do not give an impression of authenticity… The painting belongs in the … category of portraits of Rembrandt done by another hand.

The entry goes on to specify other aspects of the painting that are irreconcilable with the RRP’s standards of Rembrandtness, concluding that it is not a self-portrait but a “Half-length figure of Rembrandt” “that was probably done in Rembrandt’s workshop around 1638.” (The panel bears a Rembrandt signature and the date 1635.) The number assigned to it, C 92, places it in the category “Paintings Rembrandt’s authorship of which cannot be accepted.”

Neither Lady Samuel, her daughters or the auction house in question seems to have noticed by 2008 that in 2005 the Rembrandt Research Project, now taken over from the original team by Ernst van de Wetering, had changed its tune. In vol. IV of the Corpus, on the self-portraits, van de Wetering returned to the painting, which he now calls “Rembrandt workshop (or Rembrandt?).”

There are several reasons for once again raising the question of the authorship of this painting. The visual material that a user of the Corpus would have needed to arrive at his or her own judgement over this (long since virtually inaccessible) painting was missing from the relevant entry in vol. III. In retrospect, it is regrettable that owners of paintings allegedly by Rembrandt, but whose authenticity we doubted (as, in this case, had others before us), refused us permission to publish the relevant visual material.

In the rest of his remarks, van de Wetering deals only with evidence that bolsters his revised opinion. He does not comment on the specific weaknesses that are described in detail in vol. III, of which he was co-author. In a remarkable twist, he scolds the owner of the painting for declining to cooperate fully in the downgrading of his prize possession.

In vol. VI (2015; not yet available on Internet), van de Wetering moves the question mark in his attribution, from “Rembrandt workshop (or Rembrandt?)” to “Rembrandt (and workshop?).” His entry (nr. 134) is full of evidence corroborating an attribution to Rembrandt. There too, however, he fails to explain when, how and why the pertinent observations and criticisms in vol. III ceased to be valid and why the X-rays are no longer untypical of Rembrandt. The lessons that could be learned from this change of mind concerning Rembrandt and the ways of the connoisseur now remain unlearned and the methodological contradictions unexplained.

In 2010 the National Trust deposited the painting in Buckland Abbey, at first treating it as a non-Rembrandt and putting it into storage. At a given moment a new investigation was launched, including in-depth scientific examination by the outstanding Hamilton Kerr Institute of Cambridge University. On the basis of the positive outcome of the investigation, the painting was treated to a cleaning. Following this campaign and a re-examination of the painting, Ernst van de Wetering has been quoted as declaring “I am satisfied it is by Rembrandt,” which has also satisfied the National Trust and the media.

This case raises a number of 30 million pound questions.
– Did the RRP have a responsibility better to elucidate its radically revised judgment and to convey it to the owners?
– Is it responsible for major market parties to rely exclusively on the best-known expert in establishing estimates?
– Should an institution like the National Trust benefit from the insufficient knowledge of donors?
– Does the Samuel family deserve compensation for its loss, and if so, from whom?

© Gary Schwartz 2015. Published on the Schwartzlist on 19 September 2015. With thanks to Glen Baxter and Jaco Groot.

Two  of the reasons for the long delay since Schwartzlist 340:

From 17 March until 17 September I was writing, with a short deadline, a book on Jheronimus Bosch. Whenever I sat down at my desk I had the feeling that doing anything else than researching and writing on Bosch would detract from the quality of that book. Now that the copy has been submitted, even though there is still lots to be done, I feel liberated to turn to other things.

A second reason is that the attempt I nonetheless undertook in the interim to get a column off was frustrated by the collapse of the online editor in which I usually posted columns. I am now working in WordPress, but if I will continue there is uncertain. WordPress seems to have a learning curve that is not only steep but actually never stops rising.

See the previous installments of The transparent connoisseur at:
154 The transparent connoisseur 1 (also below, with a presentation of the case discussed)
303 The transparent connoisseur 2: more Rembrandt core

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10 thoughts on “341 The transparent connoisseur 3: The 30 million pound question”

  1. You pose terrific and rarely raised questions about different kinds of responsibility in this fascinating piece — bravo!

  2. Hello,
    Thank you for this short article pointing out the necessary prudence in the attribution to Rembrandt given both the scientific and financial issues.
    X. Paroutaud

  3. Whereas the death of the author has long been proclaimed in literary studies, who painted what still matters enormously in art history. Obviously, the stakes are different. But is there anyway to speak about this painting without mentioning “Rembrandt”?

  4. One answer to your weighty question might be a sweeping “Who cares?” Only a very small circle of people apparently. If that were not the case, then, instead of scratching our heads over yet another controversial turnabout, we would be talking about the intellectual quality of the RRP as a whole and in particular. In particular, how can someone be taken so seriously who displays such a high disregard for scholarship and the scholarly community? The “Rembrandt phenomenon” has become a victim of its own hype.

  5. I would fine mister Schwarz instead!

    First: in RRP, volVI, entry n. 134, the X radiograph is reproduced and it shows anything but a “diffuse appearence”.

    Second: I would congratulate the late-owners of the painting for their, albeit unwilling, foresight in donating it to the Trustee where it belongs. Rather than go to a voracious US collection-museum, it sits in England and accessible to everybody (during the opening hours!)

    Fair enough.

    G: Perola

    1. Mr. Perola, it was the Rembrandt Research Project that in vol. III wrote that the X-ray had a “diffuse appearance.” It was one of their reasons for rejecting Rembrandt’s authorship.

      The heirs, with whom I am in touch, would not accept your congratulations on having passed up such a sizeable inheritance as a manifestation of “foresight.” They were the victims of a miscarriage of connoisseurship.

      Finally, your snide remark about voracious US collection museums is nothing but slanderous, ignorant prejudice. Read the recent auction catalogue “Rembrandt in America” to educate yourself on the dedication and respect paid to Rembrandt in the US. About accessibility – please send me a postcard from Buckland Abbey next time you visit.

      1. Yuo are a art Historian of course, I knew your name as the Editor of “The Complete etchings of Rembrandt”, Dover 1977, 1988. Would you please let everibody know the meaning of the word “Vert de griz”, bottom of p. 15?

        Being italian, you know, may be I cultivate the wrong idea that several ouvre in the US museums, which I deeply admire, the museums I mean, belong elsewere.

        Having looked up carefully your publications, being a scientist and used to publish since 40 years on international journals from the US to Britain, I am surprised I could not find anything. Would you please update me so that I can make up a learned opinion?

        GC Perola

        1. I forgot, sorry. In the RPP last issue the file describing the motivation for the re-attribution to R. of this painting reads, from the start: “After 1969 the painting gradually disappeared from the R. canon. Wheares…
          Sumowsky not only cencured Gerson [Two international authorities at the time] for ignoring the SIGNATURE. Slatkes also defended the attribution to Rembrandt.”.

          All of this given, I could only think (absit iniuria verbis) that the owner must have turned a bungler for quite a long time, since no one woud have taken the RPP conclusion as the word of our Bible!

          1. You inspire me to put on my website a cv, with a list of my ca. 500 publications. It will be coming sooner or later. Keep a lookout, it sounds like you will want to read them all.

            About the Rembrandt Research Project not being the word of God, you are wrong. It was for many long decades.

  6. Dear Mr. Schwartz I advise you to ask the Liechtenstein Archive to send you a copy of their former ownership of this painting and you will read that this painting was painted on an Oak panel .Furthermore the labels on the reverse and the wood structure as well look quite different to me . I can only conclude that this is a copy after the Liechtenstein Rembrandt Original

    It would be interesting too to take a look in Corpus IV at the Rembrandt Self-portraits from the Mauritshuis and Neurenberg. in 1991 Ernst vd Wetering and Dr. Claus Grimm are stating that Neurenberg has the Prototype although in 2005 in his Corpus IV he writes about this same Self-portrait the Prototype does not exist any longer..
    Do you still understand what he is talking about. ??? I don’t:)

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