Possible Rembrandt returned forty years after it was stolen in East Germany

In 1979, five paintings were stolen from Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha, Germany. The works did not re-emerge for 40 years, and the event became communist East Germany’s biggest ever art heist. In 2019, however, the paintings were returned to Friedenstein, and new scientific analysis and research indicates that one of the portraits, previously attributed to seventeenth-century artist Ferdinand Bol, might be a lost masterpiece by Rembrandt.

The portrait is an informal and intimate depiction of an elderly man, and dates to between 1629 and 1632. It has previously been attributed to Rembrandt’s contemporary, Jan Lievens, and to Ferdinand Bol, whose signature is on the back of the canvas. Researchers now believe the painting is not by Lievens or Bol, and the signature could just indicate that Bol owned the painting at some point. A very similar portrait currently thought to be by Rembrandt is in the Harvard Art Museums, and if the Gotha work is proven to be by Rembrandt, it could indicate that the work at Harvard might be a studio copy, and not by the seventeenth-century master himself.

Tino Trümper, curator at Schloss Friedenstein, told The Art Newspaper that, “we can be sure [the Gotha painting] originated in Rembrandt’s studio – the question is how much of it is Rembrandt and his much his pupils? We have already talked to a lot of 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.”

The possible Rembrandt was one of five paintings that was smuggled out of East Germany in 1979 and into West Germany. Considering that during the Cold War the border between East and West Germany was the most fortified border in the world, this was quite a feat. The secret operation which led to their return in 2019 was also an exceptional accomplishment. It was instigated following a series of mysterious phone calls received by the mayor of Gotha, Knut Kreuch in 2018. Kreuch received photographs of the paintings from a lawyer, and subsequently reached out to Martin Hoernes of the Ernst von Siemens Foundation – an organisation who assist with financial support for museums to purchase works of art –  and lawyer Friederike von Brühl. Initially, the ‘owners’ who had approached Kreuch reportedly demanded more than 5 million euros for the return of the works, however Hoernes stated, “we do not give money to thieves”, and in what Brühl called a “diplomatic masterstroke”, the artworks were returned with the Ernst von Siemens Foundation only having to cover the legal costs, research and transport.

The other paintings include a portrait dated to 1510 of St Catherine by Hans Holbein the Elder; a Frans Hals portrait; a landscape by Jan Brueghel the Elder, now thought to be by his studio; and a copy of Anthony van Dyck’s self-portrait with a sunflower by one of the artist’s contemporaries.  All five paintings stolen in 1979 will feature in the exhibition, Back to Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces, at Schloss Friedenstein, which will be open until 21st August 2022.

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