Almost 200 years ago, a British family bought two oil portraits by the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt at a Christie's auction. Since then, the paintings have remained tucked away from the public eye, and were completely forgotten by scholars.
The portraits were among the highlights of Christie's July 6 Old Masters sale, part of the auction house's Classic Week. They were sold for 9.5 million British pounds (€11.1 million, $12 million), surpassing Christie's estimates, set between 5-8 million pounds.
Intimate small-scale portraits of family neighbors
The 20-centimeter-high oval paintings are Rembrandt's smallest known portraits. The rare and intimate portrayals depict an elderly plumber named Jan Willemsz van der Pluym and his wife, Jaapgen Carels.
By 1635, the year the works were painted, Rembrandt had already been living in Amsterdam for a few years, and the successful artist was renowned for his large portraits commissioned by wealthy families.
The van der Pluyms were an affluent family who owned a garden next to that of Rembrandt's mother in Leiden, the painter's hometown.
There were also family ties between the portrayed couple and the painter: one of the seven children in the van der Pluym family was married to Rembrandt's first cousin. Born from this union, the artist Karel van der Pluym is also believed to have studied under Rembrandt between 1645-1648.
The portraits remained in the ownership of the van der Pluym family until 1760, when they were sold at an auction in Amsterdam. They then passed through various prestigious collections of European counts and barons before being auctioned at Christie's in 1824.
The works were described in their listing at the time as: "Rembrandt — very spirited and finely colored."
How were the paintings rediscovered?
Henry Pettifer, Christie's international deputy chairman of old master paintings, found the paintings during a valuation of the British family's art collection.
"The family liked the pictures but were never certain that they were by Rembrandt and never really looked into that," Pettifer told The Washington Post. "They have been quietly sitting in this collection, effectively hidden away from any attention at all."
"I was really staggered to discover that the pictures had never really been researched and never been addressed in any of the literature on Rembrandt over the course of 200 years," Pettifer told press agency AFP.
After discovering the portraits, authentication began using forensic work and help from art experts, including Amsterdam's renowned Rijksmuseum that holds 22 works by Rembrandt — the largest collection of his paintings in the world.
Experts researched the line of ownership of the paintings and checked Rembrandt's signatures. After nearly two years of analysis, they concluded that the portraits were indeed Rembrandt works.
The newly discovered Rembrandts have been described by Pettifer as "one of the most exciting discoveries we have made in the old masters' field in recent years."
Christie's and Rembrandt
This is not the first time Christie's has made headlines for auctioning Rembrandt's rediscovered works.
In 2009, the auction house sold "Portrait of a man, half-length, with his arms akimbo." Painted in 1658, the work had been unseen in public for nearly 40 years and sold for 20.2 million pounds, which at the time was a record auction price for the 17th-century artist.
In 2016, Christie's negotiated a first-of-its-kind deal to sell two Rembrandt portraits from the Rothschild Collection to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The coveted portraits had not been on display since 1956 and were also unknown works by the Dutch master.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier