Top flight works available on the Old Masters market can be counted on a set of fingers at times. Nevertheless, “once in a lifetime” opportunities, always seem to punctuate Christie’s and Sotheby’s bi-annual auctions in New York and London, creating a limelight for featured lots that is sometimes undeserving. Christie’s London sale this December, however, will not be one of those times. The auction house reported this weekend that it had acquired Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With His Arms Akimbo,” (left) a signature work from the master’s mature period .
How big of a deal is this? From a price point, it looks to be rather ordinary. The auction house may be thinking that demand for a work of this caliber is more steady than astronomical. The record price previously paid for a Rembrandt came in 2001 at Christie’s, when $28.7 million was paid for “Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62.” Taking inflation into account, the high estimate of $41.2 million that Christie’s has set for its current windfall suggests that the market value for the two pictures is about the same.
Such a valuation could be taken as further evidence of Old Masters durability over the past year, given the current economic circumstances. Given the picture’s exceptional quality, it could also be considered conservative. Nicholas Hall, head of Christie’s Old Masters department, likened it to one of Rembrandt’s most renowned works, his 1658 self-portrait that hangs in the Frick Collection in New York. Mr. Hall described this portrait-which was executed in the same year, as having a similar presence of “gravity and monumentality.”
The painting’s alluring storyline may also enhance interest–it comes from the prestigious collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, wife to the deceased heir of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. While Ms. Johnson has been dispersing of her inventory of late, this picture hasn’t been on the market for some time. In fact it hasn’t been seen at all for the past few decades, having last been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1970.
The piece was on loan at the time from Columbia University, which later sold it to the Johnsons so as to pad their endowment fund. Reverberating concerns for the painting’s safety might have also played a part in Columbia’s deaccession- this according to a colorful anecdote from the AP :
“ When left-wing students occupied the university president’s office in 1968, authorities — terrified for the painting’s safety — sent in security officials to remove it and put it into storage.”