A Met Trustee Is Selling One of the Last Rembrandt Biblical Scenes in Private Hands at Sotheby’s for as Much as $30 Million

'Abraham and the Angels' was the centerpiece of a 2017 Frick Collection show.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham and the Angels (1646). Courtesy of Sotheby's London.

The long-sleepy Old Master market is seizing headlines this season.

Less than a week after announcing it will auction a major Botticelli painting, Sotheby’s has unveiled another rarity coming up on the auction block, a Rembrandt van Rijn biblical scene, Abraham and the Angels (1646), an oil on panel work that has the potential to set a new record for the artist. The current record is $33.2 million, while the estimate on this painting is $20 million to $30 million. The painting heads to sale with a guarantee.

Artnet News has learned that the consignor is Mark Fisch, whose collection is known to be focused heavily on Old Masters (mostly Italian 17th-century paintings) and has been a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2008. Fisch acquired the painting from Otto Naumann in a private sale in 2006. Neither Naumann nor Sotheby’s would comment on the identity of the consignor.

Interestingly, both Fisch and the consignor of the Botticelli, Sheldon Solow, made their fortunes in the real estate-industry, one of the hardest hit business sectors amid the ongoing global health crisis.

According to Sotheby’s, Abraham and the Angels has only appeared at auction once before, in 1848, when it sold for £64 (the equivalent of about $8,200 today). The current record for a Rembrandt at auction is $33.2 million (£20.2 million) for Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo (1658), which sold in 2009, at Christie’s London. 

In addition to its sterling provenance and rarity, Abraham and the Angels was the centerpiece of a 2017 show at the Frick dedicated to Rembrandt’s depictions of Abraham from the Book of Genesis, titled “Divine Encounter: Abraham and the Angels.” At the time it was listed as being on loan from “a private collection.” It was said then to be the first time in a decade that the work had been seen in public. (You can watch a video by the Frick about it on YouTube.)

Of the total of 136 biblical paintings, and just 29 Old Testament works, that Rembrandt produced, just five are left in private hands, according to a statement from Sotheby’s. Most are in prominent museum collections.

In December 2018, the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquired Rembrandt’s Head of a Young Man with Clasped Hands: Study of the Figure of Christ from a Sotheby’s London auction for $12.1 million. That work was identified as a Rembrandt in the 1930s and is part of a series of oil sketches referred to as the “Face of Jesus” group. Before that, the last biblical scene to appear at auction was in 2007, when Saint James the Greater (1661), was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $25.8 million.

“The subject of Abraham visited by three angels proved a fruitful source for etchings and engravings, but this was Rembrandt’s only painting of the subject,” said George Wachter, co-worldwide head of Old Master paintings for Sotheby’s.

The 1640s marked a time when the artist was “moving into a more thoughtful and deeply emotional period of his career,” Wachter added.

Another rarity for a painting this old is the nearly unbroken chain of ownership, or provenance. It traces back to a transaction in Amsterdam in 1647, between Martin Van Den Broeck and Andries Ackersloot. It passed through a number of notable collections thereafter, including  that of Rembrandt’s pupil, Ferdinand Bol, 17th-century merchant and Amsterdam mayor Jan Six, and expatriate American painter Benjamin West. It also passed through the collection of Sir Thomas Baring in the mid-19th century, and the Pannwitz collection in Heemstede (later the Aurora Trust).

The painting will appear in a touring preview that will stop in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and London before it returns to New York and auctioned as part of Masters Week in January.

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