So You Want to Buy a Rembrandt?

In this rarefied collecting field, it's all about last chances.

With this year marking the 400th birthday of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, there's no shortage of opportunities to see the Dutch mas-ter's work in museums from Dayton to Washington, D.C., to his adopted home of Amsterdam, where he's being fêted as a national hero. But if one should want to actually buy a Rembrandt painting, the options are, well, gloriously few.

"Just by heart I think there are fourteen Rembrandts in the world that are still privately owned," says Robert Noortman, the dealer in Maastricht, the Netherlands, who has sold three himself in the past couple of years. "Of those, six are in Britain and won't get an export license to leave the country."

It's hard to understate the mythic status of Rembrandt's paintings, with the high, stark light, the moody palette of ochers and umbers, and the intense emotion—masterpieces such as The Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage and the great portrait of Jan Six in the Six Collection, a work valued at more than $300 million.

At one point, some 630 paintings were attributed to the artist. That number has been cut in half since the Rembrandt Research Project— currently headed by Ernst van de Wetering—compiled a definitive catalogue, downgrading works done by pupils and imitators or worse. As this issue goes to press, three major paintings endorsed by Van de Wetering are on the market.

Noortman is selling one of them, the dashing Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet from 1633. The sitter, he says, was probably "a Spanish soldier in a garrison in The Hague—a guy who was very pleased with himself and wanted to be painted." The asking price: $32 million.

New York dealer Otto Naumann has the 1635 Minerva in Her Study priced at $45 million (see "A $45 Million Goddess"). At that echelon, the number of potential buyers is thin. Naumann has been offering the painting for almost five years. "I think I know all the buyers who can spend a lot of money, and almost no collectors of old masters have reached that high," he says.

Similarly, Noortman has had Man in a Red Doublet since he purchased it at auction in early 2001. And it took him more than four years to sell the $50 million Portrait of a Lady, Age 62, an exquisite work from 1632 that he had acquired in 2000. September 11 definitely had a chilling effect, but the bottom line is, deals on this level take time.

A more recent market entrant is the 1661 Apostle James the Major, from the collection of the Shippy Foundation of Anne Peretz, wife of the New Republic magazine owner, Martin Peretz. Included in last year's traveling exhibition "Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits," the work is being offered by Salander-O'Reilly Galleries in New York for around $41 million.

"It possesses the kind of profound pathos and intensity that's so admired in the artist's work," says Andrew Butterfield, a director at Salander-O'Reilly. Plus, he adds, it is extremely rare, even by Rembrandt standards: "It's the only one of his paintings from the 1660s not in a museum, and there are just a very few from the 1650s left in private hands."

Late paintings don't come up, in part because Rembrandt became less prolific. Naumann also explains that "the later works were more sought after when the tycoons like Mellon were buying. They liked the bigger, splashier ones that the artist painted more alla prima, without so much preparation."

These days buyers don't have the luxury of preference, with such a minuscule supply. Sure, paintings are reattributed and discoveries do pop up, such as the self-portrait casino mogul Steve Wynn bought three years ago for $11 million; it had been found beneath layers of overpaint. But any Rembrandt on the market is, essentially, a last-gasp opportunity.


Who to Know

Andrew Butterfield Salander-O'Reilly Galleries,22 E. 71 St., New York;212-879-6606; www.salander.com

Otto Naumann 22 E. 80th St., New York;212-734-4443; www.dutchpaintings.com

Robert Noortman 49 Vrijthof, Maastricht, the Netherlands; 31-43/321-6745; www.noortman.com

Ernst van de Wetering Rembrandt Research Project, www.rembrandtresearchproject.org; rembrandt.research.projectfgw@uva.nl


A $45 Million Goddess

It was the talk of the art world when New York dealer Otto Naumann unveiled it at the 2002 European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht: Rembrandt's Minerva in Her Study, a monumental portrait of the goddess of war and wisdom, signed and dated 1635, for $40 million.

Little is known about the Minerva's history prior to the 18th century, when it was recorded in the collection of Lord Somerville in Scotland. Over the next 200 years, it had numerous owners—including the Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, the founder of Electrolux—before landing with a Japanese collector who sold it to Naumann and his busi-ness partner, Milwaukee dealer and collector Alfred Bader.

"If you don't know anything about Rembrandt, this painting can be hard to swallow," Naumann says. "She's a big, wide lady, but she's a mythological figure and she's supposed to be larger than life. One thing's for sure: The work is in remarkable condition. It's rare to see something that's almost exactly how it looked when Rembrandt took away his last brushstroke."

The Minerva paid a long visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, but the museum couldn't raise the cash and opted instead to buy the 1633 Portrait of a Young Woman from Naumann for $13 million. Naumann also sent the Minerva to Stockholm, hoping the Wenner-Gren connection might stir interest there—to no avail.

"It's hard to say the Minerva [now $45 million] has been burned, although it has been shopped around—and not all by me," Naumann notes. "One guy pulled it right off my Web site and offered it to a lot of people, claiming he had the exclusive. A so-called dealer from Florida even tried to sell it to me for thirty-five million, saying the owner would come down. Amazing."