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The paintings hanging in museums are just the tip of the art world iceberg. Many renowned, even unknown works reside in private collections, long-owned and often preciously guarded by families who pass the works down over generations. Sometimes in this process, knowledge of a work's importance might just slip away. One French family recently discovered the “fake” painting hanging in their TV room was in fact an authentic and iconic work by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Similarly, a family in the UK invited a Christie's evaluator into their home, only to discover that two small portraits in their collection are in fact long forgotten works by Rembrandt van Rijn.
Rembrandt is the Dutch Old Master responsible for Renaissance masterpieces such as The Night Watch and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. With his vast repertoire of landscapes, prints, portraits, and narrative art, Rembrandt is symbolic of the Dutch Golden Age, a rich Northern Renaissance period where art, culture, and shipping trades flourished. However, his talent for expressive faces and beautifully crafted lighting are best captured in his portraits, including his 80 self-portraits known today.
The two “new” portraits discovered in the UK show off this incredible talent. Standing only 8 inches tall, the pair are the smallest known portraits by the artist. They are described to CNN as “small, very intimate, very spontaneous” by Henry Pettifer, international deputy chair of Old Master paintings at Christie’s. After some research since the discovery several years ago during a routine evaluation of an unknown family's collection, the sitters are identified as Jan Willemsz van der Pluym and his wife Jaapgen Carels. Van der Pluym was a wealthy plumber in the city of Leiden. The couple's son married Rembrandt's cousin, and the couple themselves moved in next to the painter's mother in Leiden in 1635. That year, the painter created these incredible portraits.
The find is extraordinary for several other reasons. For one, they have excellent provenance. This is the path artwork takes changing hands, which is ideally well documented to demonstrate authenticity. “What’s extraordinary is that the paintings were completely unknown,” said Pettifer. “They had never appeared in any of the Rembrandt literature of the 19th or 20th century, so they were completely unknown.” Passed down through family by Van der Pluym, the paintings were then sold to Warsaw in 1760 before passing through the collection of Baron d’Ivry in Paris in 1820 on to James Murray, 1st Baron Glenlyon. In 1824, the works were sold at Christie's, identified as “Rembrandt—very spirited and finely colored” in the catalogue. Since that date, they have been owned by the family of the present owners.
When works like this emerge into public knowledge, they open new avenues for scholars to consider the entire canon of Rembrandt's work. The works have been studied in the past few years by experts at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They will now be offered once more at Christie's, almost exactly 200 years since they last appeared on the auction block. Catch the works on display in New York and Amsterdam in June, then in London for a pre-sale exhibition in advance of the auction on July 6, 2023.
Two Rembrandt portraits, forgotten in a private collection for two centuries, have emerged and will be auctioned at Christie's.
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