In 1979, five Old Master paintings were stolen from Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, in the most daring art theft in the former East Germany. The set of works was recovered last September, and researchers now believe that one of them, a Dutch portrait of an old bearded man, is an unknown Rembrandt.
The portrait of the old man dates from between 1629 and 1632, and was the most damaged of the five works, having sustained deep scratches during the theft. After their restoration, the five paintings are now on display at Schloss Friedenstein in the exhibition “Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces ”, which runs until August 21, 2022.
Over the centuries, the portrait of the old man has been attributed to Jan Lievens, a close contemporary of Rembrandt, and to Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt’s studio. The attribution to Bol is reinforced by his signature on the back of the canvas.
But the researchers who undertook the restoration and scientific analysis of the painting do not believe that Bol or Lievens was the artist. Timo Trümper, curator of the exhibition at Schloss Friedenstein, said the arts journal that the signature only suggests that Bol owned the portrait at one point.
The scan also raises new possibilities for a remarkably similar portrait bearing Rembrandt’s signature at the Harvard Art Museums. If Rembrandt is proven to be the author of the Gotha work, this could indicate that the Harvard version is a studio copy.
“It’s a question of interpretation,” said Trümper. “We can be sure [the Gotha painting] from Rembrandt’s studio – the question is, what is the share of Rembrandt and his pupils? We have already spoken to many colleagues. Half say: “No, it’s not Rembrandt, it’s one of his pupils. The other half say it’s an interesting theory and they can’t rule it out.
So far, the portrait has escaped serious investigation into its attribution largely due to its decades-long disappearance from the Baroque castle, along with two portraits of Hans Holbein the Elder and Frans Hals, a landscape of the workshop of Jan Brueghel the Elder, and a copy of a self-portrait of Anthony van Dyck by one of the artist’s contemporaries. From an essay in the exhibition catalog of the Spiegel journalist Konstantin von Hammerstein, the thief has been identified as Rudi Bernhardt, an East German train conductor who smuggled the five paintings to West Germany with the help of a German couple who bequeathed the art to their children. Bernhardt died in 2016 without confessing to any crime of implication.